Older rugby fans love eulogising about their game; about how, back in the day, no other sport could touch it, not even this modern version of rugby.
Way back there was no music played when tries were scored, you were allowed to shoe the hell out of opponents at the ruck and a player liberally enjoying post-match functions was an integral part of the sport. In fact, before the Barbarians’ recent outing in London, when they ran the Wallabies so close at Twickenham in November, World Cup-winner and Baa-Baas coach Sir John Kirwan picked out the death of after-match beers and speeches as one of the modern game’s biggest failings.
Maybe the game has lost its way a little. A few of the amateur values are gone and the play itself doesn’t always have the same fabled, loose quality. That’s obvious in the odd games with to-me-to-you kicking, scrums chewing up the clock and TV match officials jumping in to make the referees’ minds up for them every 30 seconds or so.
And after all, how the hell could pro rugby ever live up to that Baa-Baas try? You know, the one in 1973 where the All Blacks hoof it to Phil Bennett, everyone sways and shimmies and offloads while Cliff Morgan loses his marbles in the commentary box, before Gareth Edwards dives in at the corner. It was amateurs playing the game in the best possible way.
However, while the entertainment value of modern rugby may be up for dispute in some bar rooms, there is one thing we can all agree on. Rugby kit has gotten much better.
Go back to the footage of that Baa-Baas try. Just as Edwards is scuttling in to dot down for the try, pause it. Take a look at old Gareth’s clobber. That look: call it vintage if you like, but boy it was rough.
The shirt: as baggy as a broken parachute and twice as heavy in the wet. The shorts: painted on. The boots: as thick as a high school dropout. The mutton chop sideburns: well, it was a simpler time…
Now look at one of the November Tests from this year. Some of the action was fantastic and, you have to say, the players certainly looked sleek. You couldn’t fit a family of four under one of those shirts. The shorts couldn’t catch loose limbs in the pockets as players thrashed past tacklers. The boots? Well, while some may mourn the passing of the all-black boot, there’s enough style, colour and shape to keep the garish players happy and enough functionality to comfort the hard-grafting front-rowers as they trudge towards their thirty-third scrum of the day. You won’t hear many complaints about the demise of the ankle-covering boots props used to endure.
And it’s not just the clothing that’s improved, either. Gone are the ‘tooth collector’ gum shields that were nothing more than a choking hazard, in favour of a much safer product. Gone is the bucket of sand in favour of a collapse-proof kicking tee. The ball weighs less than a grand piano when it’s raining. You can stave off pneumonia with all manners of base layers, now and pads can probably survive a bomb blast. Yep, for the elite players there’s all the fancy garments and equipment they could wish for. But more than that, there’s choice. So if you are one of the die-hards who likes their rugby fast and their replica shirt loose, you can get all manner of styles of fan jersey. You have the choice supporters never had in the good old days.
As for the players there are no excuses for when they don’t perform these days. Not where rugby kit is concerned. They have all the equipment they’d need to put on a dazzling show.
So let’s hope at the World Cup in 2015, all the big sides do just that: twin the spirit of 1973 with the wardrobe of today. We’d drink to that.