Rugby has always been a sport you can play whether you are big or small, quick or slightly slower, as long as you have the skills necessary. Since the onset of professionalism about fifteen years ago there is undoubtedly one demand that is rapidly climbing the list of importance if one wishes to survive unscathed in the top flight game, and that is an ability to deal with the media.
In a modern world where anyone in the public eye is fair game, regardless of their achievements (or lack thereof), the professional rugby player has to watch his back. Currently the game seems to be caught in a kind of middle ground between wanting to maintain its traditions whilst moving with the times of reduced privacy and around the clock news. This has only been magnified with this year’s World Cup being in New Zealand, a country in which the sport is almost a religion.
Rugby has a strong tradition of being the everyman’s game in which you knock each other about for eighty minutes and then share a beer afterwards. These days the beer may just as regularly be a soft drink, but the sentiment remains. Fans love that players are accessible and open to supporters, happy to sign an autograph or discuss the game as an individual. There is no pomp and ceremony, there is no entourage.
However, since England won the World Cup in 2003 the profile of the game has steadily grown, which brings with it more money, advertisements and scrutiny. The best players do not earn footballers’ salaries but can make hundreds of thousands of pounds a year. These same players might be the face of sports brands, male grooming products or fashion lines.
Some would say that these perks are just one side of a double-edged sword; players have to be aware that the sport they play is vastly different to the one of fifteen years ago, and that carries with it responsibilities. Unfortunately, being one of the lads is not a good enough excuse to keep you out of the papers, when in the past misdemeanours may have been overlooked. The media also has to be careful though, or it will lose the culture of rugby that it so obviously cherishes. If it is seen to always be out for blood then players could well disappear from the sidelines after games to the safety of media officers and sporting clichés.