‘Rugby then was better’ – Former Springbok laments modern game

Former Springbok Dan van Zyl has added his name to a list of players who voiced their descent at the direction the game has gone in recent years.

Over the weekend former All Blacks fullback Israel Dagg said that he felt that rugby union was at risk of being supplanted by rugby league in New Zealand, not least because of the stop-start nature of the sport and the controversy surrounding the refereeing of the tackle zone.

While the union is still dominant over the 13-man code in pretty much every territory they share outside of Australia, Dagg told The 42.ie’s Rugby Weekly Extra podcast.: “We’ve got a real situation at the moment where rugby league and rugby union are competing and rugby league is absolutely dominating. If you want to go and watch sport for entertainment, you go and watch league at the moment. They’re ticking all the boxes and one of the biggest factors is that they have got clarity in how the game is being played.”

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Now Van Zyl has chimed in, saying the early years of professionalism were the best the sport had seen. Van Zyl won a single cap for the Springboks and currently works with Leinster as a coach development officer and as rugby director at Rugby Academy Ireland and says the current form of the game is not as entertaining as it was two decades ago.

“I know rugby has changed a lot over the years, but the quality of it I’m not sure. Watching the 2000 Bledisloe match between New Zealand and Australia in front of 100,000 makes me believe rugby then was better,” wrote Van Zyl. “Great era to have played in and glad to have played in that era.”

Some responded to the former Stormers scrumhalf, suggesting that defensive systems were simply better these days. Van Zyl disagreed: “Sorry Jack, defense was actually good. Lack of structure caught defense unaware. If you think of modern systems defense is organized because of the lack of ambition to play by the attack as every team almost play a 1331 and just want to get into shapes rather than play.”

Another suggested that the standard of athlete was superior in the modern game, which has dulled the effectiveness of attacking sides, a point which the South African countered: “Tend to disagree, world class players and athletes. Think it was more play what you see and game based on alignment and effectiveness rather than shape. Lomu, Cullen, Umaga pretty good athletes and forwards all skilful. Australia’s best team ever with class players everywhere”

There is no doubting that the pandemic has helped throw the sport into crisis in some territories, but it has simultaneously expanded in popularity in others. Viewing figures would suggest that the sport has never been more popular in the UK and France, even if what happens on the pitch may not quite have the razzle-dazzle of the noughties.


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