New Age Rugby Union

Life is about change. Nothing can stay the same for too long. In a postmodern world to stand still is to be left behind: to perish in unpopularity.

In rugby terms there is a sense of shift. No longer can we justify the notion that the World Cup had to be in a top 10 country. The World Cup in New Zealand has been a great advert for the country and it all seems to be going quite well as an event, but I still feel that 2011 should have been Japan’s year. In the future the RWC must be held in North America, too. We must actively seek change.

The cynic in me says that this is because rugby must move into emerging markets. Broaden its horizons. Rugby must risk trying new things, whatever the stuffed shirts say. The purist in me just wants to see exciting new instances. My generation love explosive change.

You only have to look at the rise of social media to know what I am talking about.

10 thousand people follow Rugby World Magazine on Twitter. 65 thousand follow Will Carling, 59 thousand follow Bryan Habana and a whopping 60 thousand follow Quade Cooper. That is a lot of influence and a lot of people that could be targeted through marketing. Think of what would happen if all of these guys were selling a £3 T-shirt. Now think of what would happen if either Habana or Cooper scored the try that won the World Cup.

Frightening.

So in order to keep pace everyone has to evolve. Every team has a Website. Every team has a Facebook page. Every team has a Twitter feed. Hell, every major Union has a Twitter feed. The CEO of the USA Eagles updates fans regularly with his twitter feed (should Mark Dodson, SRU CEO, do the same?). We have a constant bombardment of facts, competitions and markets. We know all.

This in itself gives rise to a unique 21st Century problem, for rugby at least. A continual open dialogue means that someone must constantly keep it running. From 9 to 5 someone at the RFU is paid to man the iPad. Some clubs have what is called a ‘Social Media Manager’. Players must be coached on what is acceptable to say, and not to say, lest they have a shocker like Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu.

To take a Scottish example, Edinburgh and Glasgow have sites. They have Facebook. They have Twitter. With 24-hour news and a multitude of fans online, they need fed lines regularly. So we have videos. We have player blogs like the one we have with Richie Vernon. At this moment in time the SRU has stoked up a lot of new sponsors, and their marketing team have done well here. From a social media perspective, then, we get drip fed images and adverts about these new sponsors. It makes no sense to have all of the info out there at once; what link would we click on tomorrow?

For people like me this is great. I am aware of the irony. I am writing about the need to regurgitate writing regularly. It is how modern sport works and we all love it. That is why we have Sky Sports News. We need to fill seconds with events and sound bites. We must feed the 24hour beast.

As a two-way process this throws up some interesting propositions, though. We all get our say. People may not listen, but we get our say.  

England are having issues with this right now. Blog after blog has criticised them, despite them having 9 points from a possible 10. They have won twice, yet some players that are laptop happy, like James Haskell and Toby Flood, have divulged every detail about ‘Clear the Air Talks’ in their camp to waiting fans. These fans have a right to know what is going on but they can also create a monster. They can misconstrue and coax officials into shrinking away or coming out roaring. Under the spotlight Johnson has been through every emotion and tried every tact. We all watch on.

As Scotland unleash videos and WebChats they seem more demure by comparison. The fans seem calmed. We are comfortable talking about allocated subjects at allotted times. We are catered for, but there is no glut of words.

In this instance fans can chat and chat. Message boards light up. Some conversations are had with players online, but not too much. We can talk about what we’ve been given and what the expert press push us towards. Teams can be torn apart and statements scrutinised.

With the two-way street? Sometimes a message gets through. A re-Tweet here, a mention there. A few hundred likes of your creation: the Facebook page. All of a sudden there is a huge support campaign and you have got thousands agreeing with you. That is how official inquiries start and how coaches reconsider their squad.

For the game against New Zealand Marc Lievremont has selected Morgan Parra to play 10. He is normally a scrum-half but for this pivotal game the coach has picked Parra as his pivot. Some people may think this is crazy but after 20 or so minutes at fly-half against Japan where he looked assured many in France felt that, since he kicks often anyway, he was a sensible choice. Some experts were even calling for it. A message got through and Lievremont moved with the times.

Laidlaw and Parra: Similar? thanks to Roz Galloway's Flikr

This also serves as a direct example that is similar to one in Scotland. The example of Greig Laidlaw.

Laidlaw was arguably Edinburgh’s best 10 last season and rightfully got promoted to the Scotland training squad. He missed the cut for the World Cup and was rather upset about the whole thing, understandably. Many pundits felt he should have gone as a scrum-half option and a back-up 10.

Edinburgh were delighted to have him back, of course, but he was also given the captaincy, possibly in an attempt to keep him happy. Then we get ‘surprised’ a few weeks later when Twitter/Facebook/Newsletter informs us he has signed a new contract. Public pressure got him something –something he deserved –and all parties were happy. –ish.

He could have been playing like Parra in New Zealand, but he has moved on. Our gaze has moved on. We read something new and campaign for something else. Even Greig has moved on. He is on Twitter now, soaking up adulation and criticism in equal measure. Some messages may even get through.

One thing is for certain, though. In postmodern, socially networking, market balanced rugby you need a thick skin. That is one thing you can never change.

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