If we’ve learned anything from Netflix TV series, sports podcasts and purveyors of fancy doughnuts, it’s that you can have too much of a good thing. What is at first new and exciting can soon become bewilderingly oversaturated, and soon you have no idea what’s good anymore, or indeed, what to listen to while you are queuing at the Krispy Kreme drive-thru, writes Tommy Martin.
Rugby’s bloated November internationals are firmly in the grip of this phenomenon. This shouldn’t be the case, as they represent the point of the season at which the general sports fan first fully engages with the game, having ignored the PRO14’s early phoney war and only dipped their toe into the Champions Cup’s opening rounds.
Ideally they should be an eagerly awaited treat, but these days the November international Tests look like they have indulged in a few too many Chocolate Custards. The clue is in the fact that the November internationals now actually start in October and finish in December, the extra flab spilling over like builder’s cleavage from World Rugby’s shrink-fit three-week official window.
The basic laws of supply and demand are at work in all this, with the big rugby nations keen to exploit their marquee brands to generate much-needed cash. The IRFU launched a strategic plan last week which included a handy graph showing the massive chunk of revenue brought in by the international team, hence our lads traipsing off to Chicago this weekend to take on Italy.
But if the organisers of our latest Soldier Field jaunt are looking after the supply, what about the demand? Does anyone really want to watch Ireland take on Italy outside the obligations of Six Nations fare? Even in springtime it’s a fixture that is fulfilled with less enthusiasm than the rest. Sure, we’ll probably watch it, but it’s a bit like the last Original Glazed in the box, which we gobble up even though we know it’s going to make us feel terrible about ourselves for the rest of the day.
It is also part of rugby’s effort to break America, a sports market which doesn’t need any more sport. But this is the model of late capitalism, where we are fed things we don’t really want, or at least didn’t realise we wanted until they are sitting in front of us, glazed in sugary syrup.
Soccer has long championed this approach, especially since it began its devil dance with television (I should declare an interest, my day job being a sort of Craig Revel Horwood figure in that particular rhumba). Last week the Guardian journalist Sean Ingle counted 87 live games to watch across British television channels, not all of which can have merited inclusion as part of a Super Sunday.
Football always wants to give us more football, which results in bloated tournaments and crammed fixture lists. But, unlike excessive doughnut consumption, the desire to feed us sport we didn’t actually want isn’t always a bad thing. International friendlies were certainly an example of that, but the new Uefa Nations League has tidied things up a bit, like turning that mound of rubble in your garden into an elaborate water feature: equally pointless but much nicer to look at.
In fact, the Nations League turned out to be such a good idea that rugby wants to copy it — though, as Nigel Owens famously pointed out, this is not soccer, so World Rugby’s proposal to bundle up international tests into a global competition is being dubbed a ‘League of Nations’, that name proving to be a sure-fire winner in the past.
Like the expanding waistline of the November internationals, this idea, floated earlier this month by World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper, is motivated by one thing. “The premise is we need to generate more money for the international game,” said Gosper, “and the more meaningful those games are, the more likely they are to generate broadcast revenue.”
Only two decades into professionalism, it’s understandable that rugby will seek to experiment with new formats. But the bad news for rugby fans is that once this starts, football teaches us that it will never stop.
Take last week’s Fifa council meeting, at which president Gianni Infantino declared himself so impressed with the Uefa Nations League that he floated plans for a worldwide version alongside a souped-up Fifa Club World Cup, all allegedly backed by some shadowy international fund that may or may not be a front for the Saudi Arabian government. Uefa boss Alexander Ceferin reacted angrily to the proposals, presumably on the basis that setting up new-fangled football competitions which double as gigantic cash machines was straying into his patch a bit.
Football is used to oversaturation at this stage; fans are accepting of the fact that the game never stops, that there is always another match, another competition, another controversy to stare at with glazed eyes (and doughnuts, for that matter).
And the players accept the Faustian pact which means they get paid obscene salaries but can never, ever stop, not when there’s another mid-season friendly in Doha to be played.
But most rugby fans actually quite like the way things are right now, give or take those sneaky PRO4 games that hide inside international weekends.
The November matches, if you ignore the unnecessary flabby bits, set up the international season nicely, and people accept that they are ‘Tests’ and – again, this is not soccer — not ‘friendlies’ because of their relative scarcity.
Also, and most importantly, rugby players can’t be squeezed until their pips squeak like their soccer equivalents. Where overworked soccer players just sort of mope around like surly teenagers, rugby burnout leads to all manner of torn muscles and horrific mangling of ligaments, leaving players incapable of doing anything more than watching Netflix and eating those bloody doughnuts, which kind of brings us full circle.
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