When a sport ‘goes professional’ this always tends to mean big changes, no matter what the game. With the arrival of professionalism into rugby union in 1995, it became the last sport to move out of the realms of amateurs and to join the pro game. There are plenty of opinions on whether or not the move was a good one, but what have the changes introduced by the professional era actually meant for the game?
Perhaps one of the biggest changes that the professional era introduced was the raising of standards in terms of player health and fitness. With players now career professionals, there has been a significant move away from the days of hungover Sunday league games, to much more of a focus on winning matches, rather than just turning up and taking part. In fact, winning is now the main focus for teams, as with the introduction of professionalism have come the commercial advantages for successful clubs – sponsorship, hospitality and television revenues to name but a few. Players must train harder, be more tactically aware, ensure they are permanently match fit and not compromised by lifestyle in order to maintain their place in the team and ensure the club has a successful season.
Whilst 20 years ago, players may have had bulk (which could have been provided via a beer belly as much as a regular weights and fitness sessions) and still survive 80 minutes on the pitch, an overweight under fit player is rarely seen in professional rugby these days. According to Harlequins and England No.8 Nick Easter the new professional player must have ‘pure power and physicality’ and most training diets are now focused on carb injections around training sessions, protein and water or green tea, rather than pints and pies.
In terms of the effect on the game itself, the better condition of the players has undoubtedly resulted in a faster game and the need to win, in a more tactical approach. Unfortunately commercialisation has also brought with it the odd scandal, such as ‘Bloodgate’ in the 2009 Heineken Cup, where Harlequins used fake blood capsules to facilitate a tactical substitution. Overall, however, most fans have seemed pleased with the gritty determination of their team to climb higher in the league, rather than simply to make it through the game and get to the pub afterwards. Of course there are those who would highlight that the introduction of wages has meant players have lost a sense of home club loyalty, that the local aspect of games has gone and that players now follow the money instead, but this was bound to be a consequence of the introduction of professionalism, in the same way as it affected the game of football, and for the majority of fans the experience of watching the game has simply gotten better.
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