As 2015 draws to a close it is a time for reflection. It has been a year where the biggest tournament in rugby union came to the UK, the regional game in Wales continued to meander laterally and the laws of the game continue to baffle and irritate.
Rugby World Cup 2015 was a huge success. Despite eye-watering ticket prices and a decision to have football stadiums hosting matches instead of the rugby heartlands the tournament generated fantastic atmospheres and delivered some particularly memorable matches. Few will forget Japan defeating the Springboks in the ultimate example of having confidence in ones own ability. New Zealand played a brand of ‘Total Rugby’ from a different planet against France in Cardiff. There was the controversy of Australia’s last minute victory against Scotland and Craig Joubert’s dash from the pitch. Wales overcame all the odds created by a lengthy injury list against England to pull off a famous win. The hosts failing to emerge from their pool, Stuart Lancaster losing his job and the entire Sam Burgess saga was pure sporting soap opera. The final match itself also provided a tremendous advert for the sport with plenty of action and drama, ably controlled by a Welshman.
The relationship between the Welsh Rugby Union and the professional regional teams has certainly been strained in recent years and 2015 was no different. Not that long ago we had the Faletau affair with the talented No. 8 venturing to Bath anyway, leaving the Dragons with no transfer fee and the WRU left with egg on their face. It is a peculiar situation with the Union trying to attract it’s big name stars back to Wales with central contracts but their contribution to their region is often limited. There are five professional teams, Scarlets, Ospreys, Dragons, Blues and of course Wales, all with a core support. Plus, there is your local grassroots club in the town or village where you live. With so much rugby available, clashes are bound to happen, people have busy lives and responsibilities, the costs add up, plus the amount of television coverage, it is no wonder that attendances are hampered. In a few weeks the Six Nations will return and the nation will join forces again but the poor players will be flogged further after the tournament with another four Test matches by the end of June, three of which are away to the World Champions.
There is no easy solution. Fans will flock to see big one off games during the festive period and support their nation, proving that the sport still lies at the heart of Wales. However, finding the balance of encouraging those fans to support their local club, their region, as well as their nation is a tough ask. But unless a solution is found, one of that trio will suffer and fade away beyond all recognition.
The law book, refereeing and the crucial interpretation variations are probably the most debated part of the sport. A demand for accuracy has resulted in an increasing reliance on the Television Match Official hampering the flow, momentum and entertainment aspect of the game. The Maul in particular has proved to be an effective source of points because the whole area has become a shambles. Players join the maul in front of the ball, the player with the ball often detaches and moves to the back in order to guide the drive and defenders are blocked from tackling the ball carrier. Equally the scrum has resulted in plenty of lost time with teams using the set piece as a source of points instead of a simple way of restarting the match.
Despite these issues 2015 saw some incredible matches outside of the World Cup. Australia beat the All Blacks to lift the Rugby Championship. The final Saturday of the Six Nations was spectacular with tries galore. In Europe Wasps have been exhilarating in victories over Leinster, Bath and champions Toulon. In the English Premiership Exeter have been performing consistently and look a good bet to hold on to a top four place. In Wales the top of the Premiership is more competitive than in recent years with Pontypridd not running away with the top spot and Merthyr are living up to expectations in the Championship.
2015 was also sadly the year when we lost the first rugby superstar, Jonah Lomu. 20 years ago he changed the sport and became a global icon. His power and pace was matched by his humility. Sadly, he was never a World Cup winner but there is no greater tribute to Lomu and the equally imposing Jerry Collins, than having later All Black icons McCaw, Carter and others successfully retaining their trophy and cementing their place as perhaps the greatest sports team in history.