Some pundits are crediting the USA’s new Major League Rugby competition with the potential to revolutionise rugby not only in the USA but around the world.
This time the sleeping giant WILL awaken. But if what unfolded on opening weekend was the face of the revolution, count me among the loyalists.
In all three matches, I surveyed via YouTube (Austin at Glendale, New Orleans at Houston, San Diego at Seattle) mysterious minute-long stoppages of play appeared in both halves. I say “mysterious” because such scenes had never before been seen in the 195-year history of rugby union.
What’s the water break for ref?
Glendale, Colorado, elevation 5,200 feet: It’d snowed the night before and skies are dreary. Fans wear their parkas with hoods up. At 15:13 of the first half, Glendale has just cleared their lines from a penalty kick.
Viewers hear the referee’s whistle, followed by his voice over his on-field mic: “Time off – water break”.
The on-air broadcaster blurts out: “It’s a hydration break right now”, and is heard no more.
On screen, the camera zooms in on Glendale flanker John Quill of Cork, Ireland, as he approaches the lineout with his fellow forwards, determined to counter Austin’s recent momentum.
Quill is visibly perplexed, and his voice comes clearly through the ref’s mic: “What’s the water break for? Are we all right, ref? Can we play? Can we play?”
“Naw, we can’t play – it’s a water break” is the answer, and the referee spends most of the following 60 seconds trying to calm players who just want to get on with it.
“It’s not me – water break” we hear him say more than once.
All the World’s a business plan
I presume if I had been watching the original broadcast instead of a YouTube replay I would have been treated to what we in the USA call a commercial. But seeing the players milling around trying to figure out what to do with themselves during such a historic moment was so much more revealing. Anyone who has attended a National Football League or National Basketball Association game will (or should) know how effectively such commercial breaks interrupt the momentum of play and detract from the atmosphere of the occasion.
This is the epitome of a slippery slope. It didn’t always take over three hours to complete a National Football League game’s two 30-minute halves. There weren’t always 20 commercial breaks including 100 advertisements. If and when the so-called “major” U.S. sports fade and rugby rises, those advertisers are going to want to go somewhere.
For Major League Rugby to cynically pass off unprecedented commercial intrusions as nothing more consequential than “water breaks” is an insult to our intelligence and a refusal to acknowledge a unilateral attempt to fundamentally alter the sport – OUR sport.
Who made you king?
Rugby’s international governing body, World Rugby, headquartered in Dublin, Ireland, maintains the game’s laws and guidelines among 120 member national unions. Changes in laws and guidelines, while far from uncommon, have by all appearances occurred only after careful scrutiny and through proper channels.
Thus World Rugby should be called upon to answer the following questions:
- Has commercial messaging been added to the list of nine authorized stoppages the referee is allowed to grant under Law 5?
- Is MLR out of compliance with international standards?
- If not, will this now become an international trend?
For our part, we the rugby community need to answer these questions:
- Is this OK?
- Do we want rugby to become just another quasi-sport, like the NFL or the NBA?
- Sports which have become businesses structured to deliver eyeballs to the advertising departments of other businesses?
A beastly game played by gentlemen and women
The world-renown “culture of rugby” we all cherish makes rugby union unique and, I will argue, superior to all other major sports. From 1823 until 1995 – a period of 172 years – payment of players was forbidden upon pain of lifetime ban from the sport. Although one reason for this was undeniably an attempt by the upper crust to monopolise the game (since only they had the time to run around in shorts) an equally important factor was an aversion to the hyper-competitive effects money seemed to bring to other sports, notably association football (soccer). Lest we forget, supporters of opposing soccer teams are today routinely fenced from one another in many parts of the world.
Let’s get it right
The American public deserves and desperately needs better sports than what they’ve been able to attend or see on television. Rugby offers not only addictive action, complex strategies, and compelling stories, but perhaps most importantly an ethos parents will want their children to emulate. Major League Rugby is on the right track. The sleeping giant IS stirring. But its full awakening has to be achieved without killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. When the ad execs come a-calling, just let ‘em line up at the end of the match.
And so I say, “Long live the MLR” – just lose the phoney water breaks.
Author: Dave Wheelock
Dave Wheelock coached rugby for 19 years at New Mexico Tech University. He began his rugby career in 1972 at the University of New Mexico and has played in seven countries on three continents.