On Sunday, two of England’s most successful teams of the decade Saracens and Exeter played out an error strewn contest rendered surreal by their relative positions in the league. Approaching a new decade, we are left to ponder seismic yet positive shifts in the game which we all love. Here are an appropriate ten thoughts for the decade just finishing, in no particular order:
1/ The hotbed of West Country rugby is now firmly based in Devon since Exeter’s promotion in 2010 and their subsequent dominance, but there are real and present signs of a Bristol recovery which is long overdue. Added to the proud history surrounding Bath and Gloucester, this region of the rugby world will go from strength to strength. NB!
2/ Saracens, Exeter’s weekend opponents, became the measure of Excellence through the decade as Champions of England and Europe but only after a few years of trying. The sanctions imposed on them this year, the inevitable salary cap review just announced and the advent of CVC as investors into the sport will all have long-term ramifications for the game at large. 25 years into professionalism and the growing pains are still growing and are still painful. But not forever, the arrows do point upwards.
3/ Japan showed the world this year that rugby can be a ‘Beautiful Game’. Pace, wit, passing skill, passion and pride, supreme technique. Please can the rest of the world take notice as it should have done when they downed the Springboks in that famous rugby city of Brighton! The honourable exception is Fiji, the most skilful rugby nation in the world per capita.
4/ I never thought we would see again the degree to which rugby can change lives, remembering the 1995 ‘Mandela’ Rugby World Cup. Yet RWC 2019 winners South Africa took it up a level, Sya Kolisi embodying the hopes and aspirations of the Rainbow Nation. Their World Cup triumph over England was founded on a deep, intense and collective self-belief to lay down an irresistible challenge. They rounded it off with supreme skill out wide to seal the deal. What a combination, bring on the Lions Tour !!
5/ The legendary All Blacks culture became the reality and mixed with a humility that others could only aspire to, embodied by Richie McCaw and Dan Carter. A back to back World Cup was quite something and possibly unrepeatable.
6/ The two stunning victories by Ireland over the All Blacks, Grand Slams, Six Nations titles and Heineken Champions Cup wins for Leinster have elevated the men in Green to a permanent position among the world’s rugby giants if they weren’t already. Maybe not at World Cups yet, but the Irish player development programme could well peak in France 2023, unlike in 2019.
7/ Equally stunning has been the decline of French rugby through the decade allied to the influx of foreign players. Change is now afoot, the giants of Toulouse, Clermont and Racing leading the charge in traditional near-forgotten French style. Bordeaux, Lyon and La Rochelle are not far behind and surely under a new and imaginative coaching team (Inc. Sean Edwards!) Les Bleus will be the team to beat in RWC 2023.
8/ Player health has never been more in focus after some tragic deaths on the playing fields of France and numerous examples of career ending concussions or serious injury worldwide. The excessive physicality of the game is being partly addressed by law changes but must be accompanied by a change in attitude from coaches and players alike. Add to this the well advertised problems of mental health and we should all understand how important this is for the next decade, whatever one’s involvement in the game.
9/ The growth in the women’s game has been arguably the story of this decade. It will suffer from inevitable structural and tactical challenges from time to time, but no question it will get stronger and stronger.
10/ England’s wasteful underperformance was another story of the decade, in stark contrast to Wales’ judicious use of their limited but proud resource and who had the temerity to eject England from their own World Cup. The country of my Birthplace continues to defy the statistics, but England’s semi-final performance against the All Blacks will stand the test of time and can be used – surely – as a blueprint for the future. England will always be the team people love to beat, they simply have to live with it !
The game played by 99.6% of players is one where we enjoy friendship and play for fun, win or lose. We have to look after the amateur game. They are also the supporters who fill our stadia and expect values to be upheld, examples to be set and to be entertained. We forget at our peril, and this is what makes it a game for all. Let the next decade embrace this wholeheartedly and we will be celebrating again in 2029.
Happy New Year!