For those who read Joe Acklam’s InQuire article on ‘Why Rugby is Pointless’, the backlash was intense. So intense that Rugby player and newly recruited InQuire writer Ben Lovell-Smith has decided to write a response to this article.
Photo by Kent Sport Images (find on Facebook).
Having played, watched, lived and breathed rugby for well over a decade, I was abhorred to come across such a naïve and misconstrued summary of this thrilling sport. Although, I will concede that rugby is not for everyone, it requires a level of innate bravery and confrontation that not everyone can muster. Clearly this is the case for Joe Acklam. His abusive, unintelligible and one-eyed assault on the sport misses the mark on many levels. I intend to correct him on each of them.
Rugby has faced its fair share of critics, most recently from Doctor Allyson Pollock, who made drastic calls to ban the scrum and tackle from the game.
Though her claims were excessive, she at least had empirical evidence to support her onslaught. Joe Acklam does not. Acklam’s very first line of his article is factually incorrect, setting the tone of the piece. He argues that Bath is the only place other than Wigan to make rugby its favourite sport. In fact, rugby union is the national sport of New Zealand, Wales, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Georgia and Madagascar. This is just the beginning of the suffering for anyone that likes to read a well-researched article.
Skill is another element that is required in order to be a successful rugby player. Each position requires a different skill base. The beauty of the game is how these different players and their roles interlink. Fly halves must be adept at running the game, by altering their range of passing and choosing when to kick or pass, and their execution of these skills must be pinpoint. Equally, a prop forward must consider his choice of bind, his foot placement and the angle in which he will push, whilst scrummaging. Physical stature is not the be all and end all of an accomplished rugby player. I fundamentally disagree with Acklam’s argument that rugby puts physicality before skill, “It’s a sport that requires physical attributes above genuine skill…this is the main crux of my argument: I believe that sport should constitute skill above physical attributes”. There are numerous examples in the professional game that prove this argument wrong: Cheslin Kolbe (5ft7’, 74kg), Kyle Eastmond (5ft7’, 80kg) and legendary Wales winger Shane Williams (5ft7’, 80kg). These players have all succeeded at international level and demonstrate elite skill in their ability to beat a man and recognise and exploit space.
My second point of disagreement with Acklam is that rugby “lacks a real tactical element”. In only the last decade we have seen numerous waves of tactical innovations in the game of rugby. Looking at the English Premiership alone, I see three main tactical trend changes since Harlequins won the Premiership in 2012. The 2012 Harlequins side played a fluid and attacking brand of rugby with a fast backline and ballplaying forwards, they also ran a passive drift defence (in essence trying to herd the ballplayer towards the touchline). This trend was stopped by the emergence of Saracens as the dominant force in English and European rugby. Saracens base their game on their defensive rigidity, they fly out of the line and try to stop the opposition behind the gain line (tackling a man behind where the ball was played from, therefore gaining territory). Their success at this means that they are happy to kick the ball away, because they know they can win it back further up the pitch. When Exeter won the Premiership in 2017, they executed a different tactical plan, which entails keeping possession for as long as possible, using big ball carriers to gain metres through strong carries. Though different in the sense that they try to maintain possession for as long as possible, their defence is somewhat similar to Saracens, following the coaching trend of this moment in time.
“Basic and simplistic” is how Rugby may appear to the untrained eye, it is far more complicated than it seems, requiring tactical nous and split-second thinking. Clearly, as I have simply demonstrated, the development of tactics in rugby follows a natural evolution. Hopefully, with closer inspection Acklam would retract his bold statement that “It feels like they [the makers of rugby] devised the way the game would work first time around and haven’t bothered to change things since.” The game is ever changing. Acklam continually puts football on a pedestal, a sport that is effectively glorified human pinball. He should stick to his favourite arcade game.
Acklam’s arguments for why rugby is ‘pointless’ are based predominantly on the elite version of the fifteen-person game. 99.9% of rugby is played away from the television on Saturdays and Sundays across the world, thus his arguments are very generalised. Furthermore, he does not consider that there are several different variations of rugby which can be played to international standard, focusing on different skills and physical statures. Rugby Sevens is an Olympic sport, requiring extreme levels of fitness to play at the highest level. Rugby Tens is a less popular variation and is an exciting balance between the physicality of Fifteens and the speed of Sevens. Further non-contact variations such as Tag Rugby and Touch Rugby can be enjoyed by anyone.
Another hole in Acklam’s argument is that “rugby does not have a ‘world cup’”. He argues that the game is only played by former British colonies and is therefore not a true representative of participation from across the world. This is completely inaccurate. The top twelve in the Men’s Rugby World Rankings contains a nation from each of the continents of the earth. Non-colonial countries have also become very successful. Japan beat South Africa at Rugby World Cup 2015, Argentina came fourth in the same tournament and the USA have a highly successful sevens side which currently sit top of the 2018-2019 season table. Therefore, evidently rugby is played to a high level across the planet, his point is completely worthless and invalid.
I would suggest that Acklam’s inaccuracy is not his own fault, he even admits himself that he never played to any respectable standard and has clearly no interest in the game as a result, having only watched it on a “few occasions”. Any decent journalist should understand his chosen topic thoroughly, Acklam does not, and I suggest that he refrains from writing such cheap, inaccurate journalism in the future. If he would like to further his knowledge of the game, I would encourage Acklam to accept the offers put forward to him by both the UKC Men’s and Women’s Rugby teams. Rugby is a game for everyone, of all shapes and sizes. We are very welcoming and open to newcomers from any background and I can assure to him that very few of us are private school educated nor 6’4”.