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Why the Rugby World Cup Exposes Flaws in the ‘Beautiful Game’

As the famous saying goes, football is a gentlemen’s game played by hooligans and rugby is a hooligans game played by gentlemen, but whether or not you agree with such a sentiment, it is hard to argue that football is a sport now worthy of it’s tag as the ‘beautiful game’, especially when compared to its distant cousin rugby. As the Rugby World Cup takes place in New Zealand and, with the football season well under way, I have found myself watching both sports on a regular basis. If you are not a fan of Rugby Union (or League) then I will not waste my time extolling the virtues of the sport to you. Instead I will use this opportunity to suggest that, whether you appreciate the game of rugby or not, you take 80 minutes to watch just one of the games at the World Cup over the next few weeks and, whilst doing so you ask yourself this question; What can football learn from rugby?

It’s a question which I have asked myself before and recently I found myself asking it again when the World Cup in New Zealand kicked off earlier this month. I promise you that asking this question while watching a rugby match will have a detrimental effect on the pleasure you gain from watching football. Ruining your enjoyment of football is not my goal, rather I want you to become aware of the harsh reality that football is not beautiful. Not when one takes the time to compare it to rugby or many other major sports for that matter.

At first it is easy to dismiss the act of comparison as flawed, and of course I would have to concede that the two sports are very different in many ways. The shape of the ball, the number of players on a team, the basic rules, the scoring system etc. However, put their inherent differences aside and examine the conduct of players, the uses of technology and the overall officiating of each sport and, in each and every one of these categories rugby emerges superior.

Let us begin then with the conduct of players. In football we see players continuously attempting to deceive officials by diving. It has become so rife that the entire football community has come to accept it, whether we choose to admit it or not. We might be outraged when an opposition player does it, but when our team benefits from it, do we lose respect for the guilty player or do we back them? There is no glossing over the fact that the vast majority of professional football matches in the present day are effected by diving players. Every now and again a player gets booked for a dive, but in the grand scheme of things it has no effect on the willingness of players to dive. Quite simply the rewards outweigh the penalties and this is despite the fact that they are supposed to be equally balanced. A genuine and cynical foul is punishable with the award of a free-kick and a caution for the guilty party, and a genuine and cynical dive is punishable in exactly the same way. But, if next weekend the referees in the Premier League booked every player who dived then we would likely end up with record numbers of yellow and red cards. Fans, players, managers and pundits would be outraged and the referees responsible would be lucky to be given the chance to officiate another Premier League game again.

Rugby players don’t do this. On rare occasions it has happened, but it doesn’t occur in every minute of every game. One big reason for this is that rugby is a contact sport with very little to be gained from simulation. Tackling is a full-blooded and often brutal activity involving high speed collisions. Nevertheless, there are strict parameters on how a rugby player should tackle and these are stringently enforced, but for a rugby player to pretend that he is the victim of a high tackle in order to gain an advantage over his opponent is not only unheard of but ridiculous. I’m not suggesting that football should adopt a more physical rugby-style tackle, simply that players and officials in that sport obey by the rules rather than looking to manipulate them and that’s before even thinking of the negative reputation that a player would gain from such an act of cheating.

In the ‘beautiful game’ the officials are treated like an interfering subordinate class of verbal punch-bags. Football players hurl abuse at the officials at every opportunity, screaming, swearing, pushing and harassing them for every unfavourable decision which is made. Even the glorious F.C. Barcelona serve as one of the countless examples of such behaviour. Despite being probably the best team in the world at this moment, they cannot help but surround the referee at every opportunity in an attempt to persuade him that they should have a free-kick or that their opponent should be booked. Unfortunately Barcelona are not alone. Football is riddled with a disrespect for officials which stretches from the top of the professional game right down to the most amateur of junior leagues. In rugby however, players are taught from day one that they must address the referee as “Sir” and only when he speaks to them first. They accept his decisions and carry on with the game whether they believe them to be correct or not. Only the captain of each team is allowed to approach the referee to question a decision and woe betide any rugby player caught using foul and abusive language towards the referee. If the only team sport you’ve ever watched is football then you might think I’m misleading you here and this respect thing is a little far-fetched, but I promise you it’s the truth. Watch a Rugby World Cup game for fifteen minutes and I guarantee that you’ll hear the referee referred to as ‘Sir’. Surely this most simple of practices can be applied to football. I’m not a person who is easily offended, I don’t mind swearing at all, that’s simply not the issue here. The issue is respect, or the lack of it in football. It ruins the sport for me. It offers losing teams a plethora of excuses to absolve themselves of culpability in defeat. I get irritated watching players bullying referees and hurling abuse at them instead of just getting on with the game. It wastes time and the issue of time crops up more than once when making this comparison between football and rugby.

Speaking of time, let’s take some to examine the use of technology in the two sports. In rugby they’ve embraced the wondrous invention that is the stopwatch. Now if you’re familiar with this technology I apologise for patronising you, but I’m aware of an elderly Swiss man named Mr. Blatter who seems oblivious to its invention and widespread availability. Put simply, a stopwatch is much the same as a conventional watch, but in addition it allows the user to pause the clock at any point and resume time at the same point. So for example, if you wanted to time how long it took you to run a certain distance, then you would start the timer on the watch at the start line and when you crossed the finish line you would stop the timer with the watch displaying the amount of time it took you run the distance. In rugby they use the stopwatch to time the standard length of an 80 minute match, and stop the watch at any point when play is interrupted. This means that they avoid the complications of calculating how much time the game has stopped for and adding it on at the end of each half. Unlike football, in rugby they don’t have constant controversy over time-wasting and disputes over the amount of time added on at the end of games. There simply is no such thing as injury time. When the 80 minutes is up, the clock carries on ticking until the ball leaves the field of play and goes dead. This would be easily transferable to football. Play for 90 minutes and then the next time the ball goes out for a throw-in, corner or goal kick the game simply ends. One added benefit of this system is that in a tight game of rugby, when the 80 minute mark is reached, a team who is chasing a score to win or draw a match must keep possession of the ball and also keep the ball in play in order to have a chance of scoring. This adds excitement to the game and if the ball goes out and the game ends then everybody is aware that the game was played for exactly the allotted time. This means that the losing team cannot possibly complain that they didn’t have a fair opportunity.

Amazingly in the 21st century there is another, far more advanced form of technology called video. Rugby has used this technology to retrospectively punish players for offences that have not been spotted by officials during a game. For once, football is on the same wavelength with this one and partakes in a very similar process whereby suspensions are handed out based on video evidence. However, in rugby, video technology is used during the match itself, to determine whether or not a try has been scored. It’s simple in a game where, whether or not a try has been scored, the game comes to a natural break and there is time to assess the video evidence. However, in football there is not always a break in play when a goal may or may not have been scored. Sometimes the ball remains in play and there is no opportunity for the referee to consult another official. This is the strongest argument against the introduction of video technology in football and admittedly it carries some weight.

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  1. czar

    September 25, 2011 at 4:21 am

    Yes it’s been covered countless times. Rugby is what it is. This rugby world cup like past world cups haven’t generated much interest until the quarterfinals is reached. The earlier rounds are mostly forgettable, pitting David vs. Goliath. Sports is about spectacle and rugby is not much of a spectacle for most people except in the Rugby countries.

  2. Brian

    September 23, 2011 at 9:30 am

    This was covered in an excellent article a couple of years ago – many of your points were covered then and some others. Check out the article on

  3. j

    September 21, 2011 at 11:40 pm


    fifa is a bunch of thieves, burglars and idiots. they put all the wrong priotities first, and that is lucre and abuse in all its forms. and most consumers are perfectly happy with things as they are it seems, if they closed their wallets, things would then be just as they demanded.

    i’ve never bothered to watch rugby, much less play it, but many do say there is a lot to applaud and follow.

    now, i dislike and disapprove of fifa and most football suits, but in keeping the game unaltered they have a powerful, compelling point they haven’t even tried to champion. keeping the sport as unaltered as possible means that it was equivalent winning the first world cup, or the very first professional league, to the most recent. it equates the feats of players across time, and that’s something i respect and applaud, though fifa hasn’t bothered to take that position yet. so england stole their world cup, just as argentina did their first, and as south korea when it got to the semifinals, and real madrid used to bully their way under the franco dictatorship, it can still happen nowadays, and there have been great, irrepresible champions all the same. i have not a problem with that, same rules always, mean you always know what you’re getting into (including possible cheating).

  4. mike

    September 21, 2011 at 11:16 pm

    Football should adopt many of the rules of rugby that apply to conduct and video review. Only the captains should be allowed to approach the referee and players that break this rule should be cited, for example.
    Let me offer some other ideas:
    1)if a player is injured such that the game has to be stopped, whether ‘treated’ or no, he should be required to leave the field of play and stay off for a period equal to the length of the stoppage or until his team uses one of their 3 substitutions to replace him.
    Can you imagine David Villa flopping around the pitch for 5 minutes, only to find he now has to stay off for an additional 5 minutes while his team plays short handed?
    2) Have the head referee IN THE VIDEO BOOTH, using all the technology available to him- he can be linked to his 3 ARs, one on the field and one on each sideline, via electronic communication as is currently used between the 3 field officials. What is the point of having the viewing public better able to see and judge the game than the officials asked to police it? It would be far easier for this head referee to monitor the cameras and react via audio link than is currently being done, particularly with regard to play away from the ball- Joey Barton!

  5. chuichui

    September 21, 2011 at 8:09 pm

    Football is the only game that gives every one opportunity especially in the world cup, from asia,africa, europe, australia, usa name it all. Introducing technology will be unfair competition for those in poor nations.

  6. vinnie

    September 21, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    Finally, someone put my thoughts in words as I don’t blog!

    As a hardcore football fan, I was never exposed to rugby (league) until 5 years ago and recently, union. The respect (to anyone) and tendency to show their macho (ie, not whinging at any action/decisions going against them) have caught my attention.

    If one knows the history of football, it was originally a game to prove ones speed and strength, just like rugby. the original offside rule was somewhat similar to rugby, ie, forward pass. So the only way to move forward is to dribble with speed and protect the ball with your strength. Things have changed over the year and football has evolved into such a beautiful technical sport especially for those who lacked the physical strength. Being on the receiving end of the physicality, these population who lacks physical strength tend to exploit the Laws of the Game. You get the idea.

    Regardless of the evolution of football, there is no excuse why the disrespect and cheating can’t be rooted from the game. Football bodies always whinge about it but never took concrete actions to enforce it. Perhaps, like someone mentioned that it is in their interest to create attention among press and tabloids.

  7. Ruru

    September 21, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    Rugby is boring. Football is exciting. It’s as simple as that. The only thing I’ve ever learned from rugby is how to fall asleep.

    • RURU is wrong

      November 3, 2015 at 10:47 pm

      RURU your so wrong soccer is a girl sport and rugby is for men

  8. trickybrkn

    September 21, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    The only way I can watch rugby is drunk…

  9. scrumper

    September 21, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    Soccer Limey you obviously don’t know anything about Rugby. There is Rugby Football League and Rugby Football Union. Rugby League is northern teams of working class background. It has elimininated much of the slower aspects of Union such as mauls, rucks and line outs. These are certainly not teams with players from private, grammer and independant schools. The players are very working class, typically bigger and tougher than the Union players with bits of ears and noses missing. There are no superstars in Rugby League.

    I went to a “Grammer” school and we only played football.

    Let’s face facts – one month after the rugby World Cup will anybody be able to remember more than one or two of their names?

  10. Spenser Davis

    September 21, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    Great article, man. I’ve been really getting into the RWC too, actually based on randomly seeing the replay of a US match on NBC one morning.

    @Brett, go with online streaming, just like we all know and love for footy. What really sucks is that about 1/3 of the games begin at like 2-230 in the morning. But at least Universal Sports lets you see the highlights for free online, that helps a bit.

  11. Jjerg

    September 21, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    Excellent! I couldn’t agree more. Along with basketball, football has an inherent disrespect towards officials. This is not only condoned but encouraged by fifa and the top national FAs. The 1st statements out of the EPL managers are always ‘this call hurt us’ and the 1st question by ‘journalists’ usually. Instigated the responce. If the fans of any other sport harmed a national league as bad and disgustingly as the Liverpool criminals did, the sport in general would be outraged. It seems Everton was the main club to be punished by missing their opportunities in Europe.
    We as supporters have to stop rewarding our players and managers for cheating. The honor in a fair win is non existant in modern football and it has nothing to do with the economic background of the players. Its the lack of honor the supporters have for a ‘good’ win (Brian Clough we miss you) and the desire for pounds over practice in the governing bodies.
    This article has been long overdue.

  12. Reborn

    September 21, 2011 at 11:44 am

    I dont agree with the usage of a stopwatch, for the stoppage time is part of what makes football beautiful.
    Countless games have been won, lost and turned upside down during this time.

    Ive come to believe that it is the inconsistencies and reliance on a man’s judgement that make the game interesting.

  13. Yespage

    September 21, 2011 at 11:30 am

    Interesting article, especially the part about the Refs being the punching bags of the two teams on the pitch. You see much less of that behavior in Rugby.

    I think FIFA should just become aggressive at carding simulation. Often, I do find that the refs are pretty good at making the calls in Football. It is interesting that I’ve rarely seen a Rugby match where I thought the Ref cost a team the match. In just about every other major team sport, that can’t be said. In basketball the Ref control a game’s pace, in the NFL, they can decide the outcome.

    Getting a bit off topic there, sorry.

  14. Lon

    September 21, 2011 at 11:16 am

    This is a football website, stop wasting people’s time with rubbish articles about rugby.

    • jacls7

      September 24, 2011 at 8:41 pm

      it was about football. try reading

  15. Brett

    September 21, 2011 at 11:08 am

    Let me just say I’ve been extremely disappointed that I can’t watch this year’s Rugby World Cup here in the States. NBC, who has the rights, have put almost every match on Pay per View only at $15 and up. The only matches on non-pay per view on the US matches, which is ok I guess, but I suspect most people like me would rather watch the big rugby nations play.

    It seems to me, that I was able to watch way more matches of the last world cup with them on Versus (pre NBC). I know games are in the middle of the night with them being in New Zealand but still what else is being shown between 11pm and 4 am on any channel?

  16. SoccerLimey

    September 21, 2011 at 11:07 am

    Your recommendations carry a lot of credibility and should be considered but to establish the differences between the two sports, you have to look deeper at how the players are developed which highlights some of the cultural differences.

    Particularly in England, football players typically emerge from lower class backgrounds and benefit from a more limited education. They usually leave high school at an early age, and enter the ranks of a professional club at 15-16. Rugby players usually originate at private, grammar, or independent schools where no football is played. They have higher grades and come from middle to upper class backgrounds. They go on to college and become more worldly in approach.

    This all feeds into how rugby players approach the sport. They are easier to coach, faster learners, and more respectful and have the advantage of being able to release aggressive tendencies during the game. Fans of the game are more reserved and typically less aggressive too.

    Difficult to change any of these dynamics.

    • Rory O'Beirne

      September 21, 2011 at 11:30 am

      I disagree with your theory on the socio-economic backgrounds of football players in comparison to rugby players. Although it may be fair to say that footballers tend to come from less privileged backgrounds than Rugby Union players, in the north of England the sport of Rugby League is dominated by players from working class backgrounds.

      Additionally I am writing predominantly about the issue of conduct on the field of play and I firmly believe that the general conduct of football players is underlined by an attitude of dishonourable deception. Changing the punishments for such behaviour is an obvious solution to this problem.

      Although it is inevitable that the culture of the sports will differ, surely it is feasible that they can look to their similarities in order to progress and improve?

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