By Carl Leo
Rugby’s relatively new transformation from amateur sport to professional sport has led to many changes. Changes in playing style, rules, and the way that players, coaches, unions, and kit manufacturers approach the game, have all had an impact on the intrinsic elements of this incredible sport. It’s probably one of the youngest professional sports out there and many people have already forgotten this fact. Professionalism has led to a touch more organisation to a game which resembles organised chaos on so many levels.
After being played as an amateur sport for over a century Rugby Union became professional in 1995 with the IRB declaring it an ‘open’ sport. This was done mainly to combat the players defecting to Rugby League which was already professional and to halt the “shamateurism” which had become increasingly obvious in union.
The latter stages of the amateur era of Rugby Union are perhaps one of the best examples of the term Shamateurism. This is the practice when particularly talented players of an amateur sport are forbidden from being paid openly for their services. This leads to under the table transactions, which makes a sham of the amateur status of the game. A perfect illustration came from a somewhat smug Australian rugby legend David Campese in saying “I’m still an amateur, of course, but I became rugby’s first millionaire five years ago.”
Many talented players were on the receiving end of payment in the form of houses, cars, and cash for their dedication and commitment to smashing, tackling and rucking their way across the union fields of the world.
Whilst the professional era has led to a more economic and scientific approach by unions and players much of the old charm of amateur rugby remains. This is evident in the stories and quotes that emanate from this unique sport which all reflect a community that holds true the qualities of competitiveness, playfulness and a strong sense of team spirit. The nature of camaraderie and relationship building between team mates and opposition being built up through the combative nature of the sport is a common thread in rugby, and this applies to all levels, which is why it is such a great sport to get involved in.
More evidence of rugby’s continuing evolution lies in the recent introduction of the ELV’s or Experimental Law Variations which were designed to make certain elements of the game easier to understand for players, referees and fans alike as well as to add a bit of speed into the game. Opinion over the rules is divided with some claiming that it has only confused matters whilst others praise them. Rugby’s Laws are confusing at the best of times but the basic principles have ensured that it has always been an entertaining game to watch and to play; Jonathon Davies said it best on the BBC TV’s A Question of Sport with the remark “I think you enjoy the game more if you don’t know the rules. Anyway, you’re on the same wavelength as the referees.”
Professionalism has also had an impact on the body types of players. Previously rugby was praised for being a game where there was a position for any type of player with any body type. There were positions for the small guys, the fast guys, the tall guys and the fat guys. This still holds true in the amateur levels and this is part of the reason why the game is so good for confidence and team spirit, everyone plays an important role, without the big heavies taking care of the scrum the fast light chaps will never get the chance to take the ball down the wing. There’s no excuse not to get involved.
At professional level the transition meant that now they’re all pretty much big and fast, man-mountains with incredible athletic abilities that defy the laws of physics. Jonah Lomu was perhaps the first example of one of these players even though he burst onto the scene just before the game turned professional, coincidentally becoming rugby’s first superstar. Colin Meads exclaimed in “I’ve seen a lot of people like him, but they weren’t playing on the wing.” Since then things have changed, pro players are obliged to spend hours in the gym with professional trainers and physiotherapists turning themselves into the ultimate rugby machines.
The true turning point for the game came with the inception of the Rugby World Cup, for the first time nations could pit themselves against one another and truly test where they stood in the greater scheme of things in the union world. It was also responsible for ushering in a far greater television audience which of course led to greater interest from sponsors and top sports equipment brands looking for exposure to their products.
The different mindset can even be seen in the kit that rugby players use nowadays. Previously rugby jerseys were built simply to withstand being torn easily due to the nature of tackling etc. These days it’s about wicking, durability, and trying to make it difficult for the opposition to hang on. The same rings true for boots and protection equipment with today’s designs featuring advanced technologies.
This is especially clear in the current Canterbury range of rugby gear. The jerseys feature bucket loads of technology with modern materials such as body mapping Cool Dry mesh knit for sweat zones, flatlocked seams and little Grip Dots on the chest shoulder and back panels for the unique demands of holding the ball and binding with other players.
Professionalism always brings that extra bit of technology into sports as gaining the smallest of edges becomes more and more important. Canterbury is a shining example yet again with their shoulder vest, the Elite Flexitop with Ionx. This shoulder vest is worn underneath the jersey and provides cushioning in strategic areas. The really interesting bit lies in the Revolutionary BaseLayer Ionx which delivers ionic energy to the body through a negatively charged electromagnetic field. This improves performance and accelerates recovery by increasing the flow of oxygen-enriched blood to the muscles.
Even amateur players can benefit greatly from the enjoyment of the game through using the developments in technology that have come out of the professional game. It’s about finding a perfect blend of performance and enjoyment that suits you and your level of play.
To have come this far in such a short space of time is truly remarkable, it’s a testament to the unique qualities of the game. Whilst it has its fair share of quirky traits it ultimately boils down to being a sport which measures your personal character and physical performance in so many ways. Jean-Pierre Rives summed it up well saying “The whole point of rugby is that it is, first and foremost, a state of mind, a spirit.”