When does old footy start to look like new footy? Given the vast changes in rules, fitness, and coaching over the last 25 years since the arrival of full-time professionalism in rugby league, it is an interesting thought to consider. Rugby union, having had no professionalism of any kind prior to 1995, has been able to watch their sport grow into a global entertainment enterprise. Despite the undeniable advances that have taken place, many will tell you that the game isn’t what it used to be.
The recent death of legendary Welsh captain JPR Williams, along with an article in The Guardian, have brought this to the fore. The article points out that rugby union, as a spectacle, has rarely been better than it was in 2023. However, there are still flaws in the game that are evident when comparing it to other sports.
As a journalist, I have revisited old rugby matches from the 1980s and 1990s and found that footy in the past was quite dreadful. While it may have been a different story when it was new, in comparison to today’s games, it’s not a product that many would want to consume often.
In the early 1990s, rugby league evolved and continuously sought to improve the TV product. The defensive structures that are now seen as the cornerstone of rugby league were well in place. With the rules being relatively stable for a third consecutive season, it might be possible to call what we have now the best ever, where athletes get the best opportunities, coaches have the most input, and the sport should, if left to its own devices, find an optimal balance.