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We need the soul of rugby to return

Excuse me if I sound a bit flippant here, but as rugby folk we’ve forgotten how to market the game we love.

I’m not talking about the ponytail hipsters, the presentation moguls and the television channels, but rugby folk on the ground have forgotten how to market the game we love.

Let me explain.

This isn’t a column about sporting budgets, it is about getting excited about the game again, about finding what we love about it and passing that on.

It is about showing enthusiasm, a bit of showmanship and a lot of marketability as players, officials, coaches and teams - something that sadly has been lost in the professional era.

It struck me this week, when, like any decent reporter, I asked for a sit-down with Wallaby showman Quade Cooper. His Reds team were in town and far away from the glow of test match rugby and the demands and pressure that it brings, and it seemed like the best time to have a chat.

After all, like him or hate him, we all have an opinion about Quade – whether on his rugby career, his boxing antics or generally as a sportsman.

One of the perks of doing a job like this is that you get to 'interrogate' these players, ask them great questions and try and learn a bit more about them so that your audience can form a better picture.

Instead of being a run of the mill interview, a terse email arrived offering “the coach for 15 minutes on Friday morning outside the hotel” but no Quade.

“Sorry but we have a busy week” was the only reason given.

We’ve seen this before, teams wanting to fly in under the radar and skip all their media responsibilities. Their busy week usually involves the inevitably training sessions, wandering around Montecasino and wait for it…playing golf.

But to single out the touring teams will be wrong, because all around the Super Rugby competition, professionalism has made teams creep back into their shell.

Gone are the days where the players who are 'characters' are exposed to the world. The modern rugby player is crammed into a box and told what to say and what not to say, hardly ever exposing their own thoughts and feelings on any matter.

To be honest, we as media should shoulder some of the blame as well. We move from from press conference to press conference for a sanitised quote, while those on the extremes look for sensation without substance to make a name for themselves.

So while social media has opened up the world and brought fans closer to the game, the teams have closed off and retreated further into their laager.

It doesn’t happen in other sports – basketball and NFL are exceptional in how they promote their athletes, with players finding huge endorsement deals by being the face in the public.

Footballers also find themselves very marketable by their personalities.

Here in South Africa, Super Rugby teams close themselves off, having one press conference in a week – and this on a Thursday – which lately means they’re trying to sell a game while other Super Rugby games are on the go.

And then all six SA teams hold their team announcements on the same day at the same time, virtually killing their own chances of getting a story run properly about them as they just make the 48-hour deadline set by Sanzar.

This means the most memorable quotes and discussion on a game is limited to one story in a weekly cycle, and often the juiciest bits are missed because there simply isn’t time or space to report on it.

There was one Super Rugby coach in Pretoria who often would tell us his captain needed to be straight-laced because “I need to be certain he sticks to the script.”

A player like Dewald Potgieter terrified him, because as the coach would admit, he never knew what he was going to say. But Potgieter – as in his columns on these pages at the time – was a special player, one who could enunciate his thoughts into writing in a special way. His columns were a firm favourite of those who read them.

But they were also the nightmare to the Bulls hierarchy.

There are precious few places left in the game where players will give an honest answer and not a PC one. The interaction is so limited that the public is ultimately the biggest loser in this situation as they don’t see the true sides of those they idolise on the field.

And the players lose out as well. Their earning potential is limited as sponsors don’t immediately connect with them because of their personalities, and so many opportunities are lost.

Rugby talks about being professional – and of course there are limits – but rugby’s soul is being lost because teams cannot talk about anything else “but taking it week for week.”

Players and coaches are muzzled on administrators, on referees and on the state of the game to such an extent that when one does have an outburst – like Duane Vermeulen it is seen as an attack – and taken totally out of context.

There is a reason that pundits like Nick Mallett and Ashwin Willemse create so much debate with their views after games. They say what they think, and they often give gems of insight that some of us may miss.

I saw a local columnist the other day bemoan the fact that rugby has become boring on the field and while he may be right, it is right because we have lost the drama of the game.

We have lost the sideshows, the battles between players and the personalities involved.

Rugby has become a game of statistics, of turnovers and kicking counts. We worry more now about being “entertaining” on the field and them moan and groan when a team wins 65-40 with nine tries, saying that there is no defence.

Is it any wonder our stadiums aren’t full anymore?

Our game is still filled with personalities, stars who have drawing power far beyond the traditional rugby supporter. A quick look at the Instagram and Twitter accounts of certain players will confirm that all too well.

But they are not able to fulfill their potential, as people and players at the same time, because they need to conform to a team dynamic that is scared as hell that any bit of controversy comes out.

That in itself is killing the game. If players are genuine professionals, they will be trained to be media savvy, know what and when to say it and how to get a point across.

They will know how to sell the game, how to make it exciting again.

Rugby is missing the characters on a large scale. The players that make us want to watch rugby.

They are there, we know they are. The game is so much better when the personalities dominate it with both their talent and vibe.

So, is it too much to ask for rugby coaches to allow the game to find its soul again?

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