Live rugby, it’s not all about the players and the ref!

Live rugby, it’s not all about the players and the ref!

Can the live rugby experience be revolutionised by adding referee-spectator interaction and a better big screen experience? 

A common theme develops talking to rugby spectators, you go for the atmosphere. So much action happens at such close quarters spectators, 100m from the action, have no idea when something happens – either a penalty is committed or the play carries on.

Should rugby referees take responsibility not just to signal to the players (and in practice half of them have no clue either) what the infringement is, but also to the crowd? Could a series of hand signals (most are there already), better still flags, be developed so the ref could communicate to the crowd precisely what has happened? 

Should TV have a responsibility to provide a better stadium experience? The ref is mic’ed up already, what if he just told the TV director the play (foul or otherwise), they could put this on the big screen, overlaid on a replay clip if available? 

A rugby game is not that different than going to a music concert. It is great to see the whole act, but when the lead guitarist is playing a solo you really what to see the skill of his hands on the fretboard. Big screens are an intrinsic part of a concert experience. Concert producers don’t try and improve the live music experience by playing rugby on the big screens, so why do rugby event producers play music to improve the rugby experience, rather than maximising the rugby?

Should rugby re-think what it means to attend a game? It is not all about the players and the referee, the spectators are as much a part of the event and need to be treated accordingly. 

Could Sonny Bill Williams transform American Football?

Could Sonny Bill Williams transform American Football?

Arguably SBW transformed Rugby Union (for the better) with his offloading, in the way Jonah Lomu transformed what a rugby winger could do. Could SBW do the same for American Football?
Lomu was ready to sign up with the Dallas Cowboys as a running back when he was encouraged to play one last rugby gameby Eric Rush and so sealed his fate and the first global rugby superstar was born.
American Football allows passing backwards or sideways (according to the ground, not the direction of the players hands) anywhere on the field. Behind the scrimmage line (where the players line up at the start of a play) the ball can be thrown forward (generally the role of the quarterback, but not exclusively). If the quarterback is throwing short it will normally go to a running back with long throws tending to go toward the sidelines to a wide receiver. And when the throw is complete, the receiver is tackled and so endeth the play.
Perceived wisdom is that the cost of a turn over in American Football is so high that is not worth the risk of dropping the ball during a pass between players in motion. However, benefits of yardage are so high that surely, if looked for, trained and coached accordingly, there are low risk opportunities to be exploited? And the long quarterback throws are not necessarily a high percentage choice anyway.
There is also a view that it is too hard for the pass receiver to focus on both catching the ball and, at the same time, be aware of defending players around him. This of course, is what rugby players are expected and trained to do all the time. Given the focus of the defending players (once the quarterback has passed) is on the pass receiver, there are generally a number of offensive players free. 
Think back to rugby league say 20-25 years ago. Practically no one passed until the final play in a set. Perhaps it was the increase in rugby union players migrating to league in the 90s that helped spark a significant change? The passes increased, the tempo picked up significantly, the skill level improved and the game became way more exciting.
The question, therefore remains, could an athlete with the talent of an SBW or Israel Folau, playing as a wide receiver, catching the quarterback’s throw, and offloading in field to a strong, fast running back in the mould of Julian Savea revolutionise American Football? Or is it that short plays work well for television advertising and the almighty sponsorship dollar is really what drives the coaches call?

America’s Cup, the cocaine of  our sporting world?

America’s Cup, the cocaine of  our sporting world?

I​t’s expensive, it’s mired in controversy and illegal allegations, and every few years it gives you a hit that you can’t resist!

Grant Dalton is our perennial drug dealer. He makes money with a smile, gives us a brief high and when the high wears off we are left wanting, but with nothing there.
Who wasn’t getting up at 8 o’clock most mornings a couple of years ago to snort another line, sometimes to be left with a buzz,  other mornings the low hit way too soon, yet we kept coming back for more. And in the end we were left weeping in the gutter.
We know the the pushers and suppliers are making ridiculous sums of money and boy do we hate them for it. But when they serve up the goodies, we can’t resist. We gotta give it another go.
And who get’s to make the rules, well the mega-rich of course! 
As the Bermuda regatta approaches in 2017 are you thinking – just a rich boys sport, not interested, spoilt billionaires showing who has the biggest… bank balance? You betcha! And when the final comes around, and Team NZ are lined up like a white line in the corner of a dark nightclub, who will be the first to roll up a hundie and suck it in!

Televised rugby on a football field just doesn’t work!

Televised rugby on a football field just doesn’t work!

​The last two All Blacks tests, against Ireland and Italy, were played on an American football field and a football (soccer) field respectively. In comparison to games in New Zealand, the televised result was pretty lousy. 

Rugby is a complex game to produce. There is a need for long shots during open back play, mid-range shots during set pieces and tight close-ups at tackles and rucks, with flexibility during 1st and 2nd phase play. It is critical for the viewing experience to be right there in the action. It’s hard enough to know what’s been penalised, but when you can’t even see the game, it’s nigh on impossible.

In the Italian game there were way too many long shots (great in football), the director was too slow to get in tight after a tackle, and the number of times that a replay would have been great, but we were treated to a lovely, but irrelevant slow mo was a wee bit frustrating.

Some of this is because of the field and the options for  camera locations, but some of it is the taste, competence and experience of the production team.

How much does the coverage of rugby in non-rugby locations, with directors that are not attuned to rugby affect your viewing pleasure? How much does it affect the journalists who write about the games – much harder to praise the work of a #7 in the ruck when you can’t actually see what he is doing? And, more concerning, how much does it affect the coaches, who must rely on live footage to some extent?

Should the Sky Sport rugby production team cover All Blacks test when in neutral locations – they really are very good?

What is the spirit of the game?

What is the spirit of the game?

​In the final of the Asian Champions Trophy (Hockey), played between Pakistan and India, when the ball touched the foot of an Indian player unnoticed by the referee (a penalty offence) the Pakistani team appealed. When the referee referred it to the review umpire, the Indian player immediately went to the referee, explained that the ball had indeed touched his foot and requested that Pakistan not have to use up their last referral.

Grant Elliott offered a hand to Dale Steyn at the end of the Cricket World Cup semi-final.

Nikki Hamblin, help her competitor, Abbey D’Agostino in the Olympics 5,000 meter semi-final after they both tripped, but Nikki refused to continue alone and helped Abbey through the rest of the race.

We love these stories, the press love these stories, we applaud such “sportsmanship”.

So why, if we  praise such things do we conversely support outright cheating and clearly unsportsmanlike behaviours?

The NRL and UK Super League have an instant yellow card for punching, but international Rugby League does not (although it still illegal). In a recent game between England and France there was a big brawl. The English coach explains… “There was just a bit of emotion early in the game. They play the national anthems, they’re in front of their own crowd…a little incident happened. It just happens sometimes. It’s body contact.” Is there not a world of difference between a hard, but legal tackle and punching a player? Both can be used by players to express their ‘emotions’ and both are ‘body contact’. Why is it reasonable to ‘bring back the biff’?

How often do we see a rugby player coming out of ruck or tackle push the tackled player back into the ground. Dan Coles has a habit of this and the commentators pass it off as a joke, rather than condemn it not only as illegal, but for being clearly unsportsmanlike. The same commentators who praise the likes of Grant Elliott.

Is the skill in cricket to be able to bowl, bat and field with better technical and strategic skill than the opposition, while understanding and exploiting the strengths and weaknesses of opposition players? Then why is sledging, an attempt to bully and emotionally overpower the opposition not using the skills or tactics of cricket, tolerated and often praised?

Ben Stokes from England was found guilty in a recent test with Bangladesh of breaching Article 2.1.1 of the ICC Code of Conduct for Players and Player Support Personnel. This breach related to “conduct that is contrary to the spirit of the game”. This after he was repeatedly warned to stop “verbal engagements” with the batsman. What is the “spirit of the game” if you are allowed to verbally intimidate the opposition, but only to a point – at what point is that bullying behaviour no longer in the spirit of the game? And the English captains response – “I do find it a little bit frustrating… both Sabbir and Stokesy are very competitive cricketers. To me, people love it. That’s what people watch.” Is that right or do we watch a contest between the skills and tactics of ball against bat?

The rules of football state that a “A player is cautioned and shown the yellow card if he commits any of the following… unsporting behaviour… dissent by word or action.” So how is it that footballers can harass and intimidate referees as they do and not be yellow carded? 

Is it that I have just missed the point? 

So when the rules of football and cricket talk about “unsporting behaviour” and “the spirit of the game”, the boundaries of such include bullying and verbal abuse?

There are big differences between playing well, playing hard, playing to the edge of the rules, playing to win, and using bullying, intimidation and aggression, skills that are not defined as part of the skills of the game, to beat the opposition. 

Are they rules or are they just guidelines? What have I missunderstood?

The Black Caps… how important are a few individuals?

The Black Caps… how important are a few individuals?

The Black Caps have struggled in test series in India and South Africa in a way that we have not seen for a couple of years. Have we become complacent in recent times that the Black Caps will just keep getting better? Is this a reasonable expectation? Did the influence of a few people, Brendon McCullum, Shane Bond and Kane Williamson, have such an impact across other’s performances? Or is this just a wee slip up, having faced possibly the top test bowling side in South Africa and India, the top test nation, both in the comfort of their own backyards?

For a short period we had close to the best batsman in the world, a captain who had a strong and clear influence and the the respect of his international peers, and arguably the best bowling coach in the world. Having lost 2 out of 3, Kane Williamson is left holding the fort, but can one top performer influence an entire team? Feels a bit like the days of Daniel Vettori and the one man cricket team.  

Sports in New Zealand sporadically over achieve, recently golf and para-swimming, with star athletes who are able to shine in relative isolation. One person is all the difference in individual sports, but in a team sport their influence is limited, they need support. The NZ cricket team in the late eighties had Crowe, Hadlee and Ian Smith, and over achieved. But once Crowe was on his own, the results didn’t continue. 

When you see the performances of some of the individuals, it  is impossible to know the extent to which that performance can be attributed to the influence of others, be they captains, coaches or peer players. You may have been in teams, sport and other, where a single top performer is useful, but 2 or 3 can really set the tone and change the team’s outcomes. Is this is what has happened to the Black Caps?

Colonial past dominates New Zealand sport, but for how long?

Colonial past dominates New Zealand sport, but for how long?

New Zealand’s sporting landscape is dominated by ‘commonwealth’ sports. The sports we read about, are encouraged to play and watch on television – rugby, netball, cricket, league and football.
The fastest growing ethnicities in New Zealand are Asian – Chinese, Korean, Indian and in terms of growth rate, Philipino.The majors sports from these countries include table tennis, badminton, volleyball, baseball, taekwondo, basketball, hockey and of course, football being the world game. 

How and when will this translate to changes in our sporting landscape?

Sport in New Zealand is delivered by many entities – formal sports organisations such as NZ Rugby and Netball New Zealand; schools; community sports organisations, including regional sports trusts and churches among others; commercial providers; and local authorities with a focus on facilities.

The major sports, with a relentless drive for growth, will try and encourage these ethnic groups to participate, but is this sensible and efficient? How well positioned are the codes popular in these countries to support development – Table Tennis NZ, Badminton NZ, Baseball NZ? NZ Cricket has one Indian player out of 21 contracted players – 4.5%,  which nicely represents the Indian population in New Zealand, 4% as at 2013 census. But does it represent the importance of cricket in the Indian community? This is not a criticism of NZ Cricket, rather an example of possible change. Is hockey in a similar position? South Korea has hosted a FIFA World Cup, reached the final four and made the last nine FIFA world cup finals tournaments, but how representative are South Koreans in our national squads?

Sport New Zealand’s community sport strategy specifically talks about improving reach to underrepresented communities and has introduced trageted populations funding, which is now largely focused on Auckland – this is good. As Sport NZ’s primary measure is absolute participation numbers and given it is easier to retain than attract participants, will the funding continue to follow the strategy? Funding requires organisation. You need to know how to attract funders, have the desire and motivation to seek funding and the capability to deliver; therefore, in the first instance it will largely be up to the incumbent entities to drive any change. Aktive Auckland Sport and Recreation, and others will need to hold the line.

Schools will respond to demographic changes. Whether changes are driven by forward-thinking heads and boards of trustees, or central strategy directives will dictate the pace and impact.

The commercial providers will follow the money and as such may drive change the quickest in the short term.

Local authorities have to operate to longer timeframes and the recent development of multi-purpose facilities should provide some flexibility. Auckland Council, with the largest new immigrant population, have a complexity of plans that include addressing these changes, but will the menagerie of sports organisations in Auckland be able to coordinate effectively?

And then there is high performance. Will we see a day when New Zealand becomes a major force in badminton, volleyball or baseball driven by Asian ethnicities? Table tennis is dominated by new Chinese in New Zealand, with one player achieving Olympic qualifying standard, but lacked support from NZOC – disappointing, but reflects the the current focus. High performance is largely not about absolute participation numbers, rather it is lead by the quality of the organisation and administrators, and the development of world class coaching structures and high performance programmes. Track cycling is a recent example in New Zealand of a minority sport with relatively low participation, that has built a world class, high performance capability and performed accordingly. For this to happen, a collective with the interest, passion and commitment needs to lead. Realistically, how important is high performance sport to developing immigrant communities – for the Chinese playing table tennis it clearly is important?

The short term opportunities appear to be with cricket (maybe hockey) and football. Well established sports who will need to reach beyond their traditional base. In the long term it will come down to the motivation and skill of administrators in what are today minor sports and community organisations funding strategy and delivery.