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Rugby is dying – and its narrow-minded ban on sharing World Cup highlights isn’t helping

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Let the enamoured fanbase show their illegal clips, rev up the world with one-minute immersions in wonder tries and rib-crushing tackles

September 14, 2023 12:44 pm(Updated 2:04 pm)

Half a century ago that mighty football mouthpiece, Brian Clough, took to his soapbox to predict the death of football.

TV is a killer, he said. “Coverage has got to saturation point. It has taken from the working man his ability to look forward to the pinnacle of his week, a Saturday afternoon or a midweek match.” Clough argued that the onslaught of live TV would mean grounds would be half-empty because fans would opt to watch games from their armchairs instead.

Old Big ‘Ead could turn a centre-back into a centre-forward and vice versa, he was the Pep Guardiola of his day, but he could not have been more wrong in his understanding of the media and the power of live action to set the game ablaze and draw in the most disengaged casual spectator.

For Clough, read the DMCA, the copyright police doing Clough’s work if from a different perspective. It is the job of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act to shut down, on behalf of the rights holders and the Rugby World Cup, the YouTubers and TikTokers who pony on stolen broadcast clips to boost their own content.

Clough thought he was protecting the integrity of the sport for its core, matchday attending audience, when in fact his narrow thinking was doing the opposite. The proliferation of the broadcast coverage brought the game to millions more whilst at the same time driving the appetite for live attendance. Therein is the lesson the RWC would do well to learn.

The DMCA is protecting the investment made by the broadcast media. Yes, it is only doing its job but in so doing is harming a game desperate for more people to love it. Sport is business. It needs to appeal to the widest possible audience to survive.

The domestic game is in trouble. Clubs cannot generate sufficient funds to sustain themselves in the professional era. Worcester and Wasps are no more, London Irish on their dying breath. Others are hanging on.

Moreover, rugby would benefit from the great wash of chatter that fuels the football inferno. Rugby is not like football, where the action is easy to follow. It is a complicated game, elements of it not understood even by those who play it and officiate.

England’s Tom Curry is about to start a two-match ban for the same kind of illegal tackle deemed legitimate when South Africa’s Jesse Kriel cracked heads with Scotland No 8 Jack Dempsey.

To the untutored eye the pitch is smothered in chaos, the ball disappearing for chunks of time as it percolates through rucks and mauls before leaching once more into the daylight. The contest is one of violent struggle, a mosh pit of athletic aggression and jarring collisions impossible to fathom as an occasional viewer. It is the game’s visceral nature that compels the eye and keeps the nerds happy.

For the rest of us, we hang in there, grappling to establish the rhythm of a contest until an escapee explodes through the defensive line into open space. This is one of sport’s great reveals, the kind of thing we talk about on social channels and which appeals to the non-aficionado. And when that cohort is engaged rugby is in business.

This is rugby’s big moment, a World Cup in France, a final scheduled next month in the most visited capital city on earth. Yet so little of the heat is spreading beyond France and the rugby community.

The RWC has done a brilliant job of hiding the Eiffel Tower, of making the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe disappear. All is silent on YouTube and the site formerly known as Twitter when it could be amplifying the message.

What is wrong with a little loss leading. Nourish the soul of the believers whilst hooking in fresh meat with some tasty morsels. Let the enamoured fanbase show their illegal clips, rev up the world with one-minute immersions in wonder tries, drop-goals from the half-way line, rib-crushing tackles.

If Welsh redoubt Josh Adams were a farmer, cattle would stampede at the sight of that vascular neck and eye-popping stare. His G-force hit on Fiji’s Selestino Ravutaumada left his victim with his shorts askew not knowing where he was. That’s a million-dollar GIF right there, were it legal to show it.

The game is short-sighting its way into a siding. Before you know it, Saracens will be back playing in front of 200 people at Southgate. The requirement of the RWC is not to police content creators out of existence but to balance the protection of copyright with the need for the kind of aggregated, inclusive, impactful engagement that grows the audience.

Besides, not everybody has time to consume the whole in real time. The viewing habits of today are not what they were in Clough’s time. They revolve around rapid, easily digestible chunks. A minute is an epoch on TikTok. Social media is not the enemy of the RWC, but it could be a route to the new friends it so desperately needs.

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