When rugby turned pro in 1995, did the game embark on a road to amazing new heights or commence a slither into the abyss? Read this debate from our July 2020 edition

Face-off: Is the professional era better than the amateur one?

Co-host of Running the Numbers podcast and RW contributor
“Christmases and birthdays were better when we were younger. It follows that rugby was also better back in the halcyon days of our youth. It wasn’t.

In the 1991 World Cup the ball was in play for an average of 24min 48sec; in 2019 that figure was 36min – 11 minutes more per game. Even England v Australia, the game with the fewest minutes of ball in play, had more rugby than the average match in 1987, 1991 or 1995.

There is also more happening in a game – 273 passes in 2019 versus 201 in 1995, 174 rucks or mauls versus 94. There are fewer kicks (45 to 59) and penalties (17 to 26). The sport is filled with more action than occurred in the amateur era.

The common response is that all those things are true but rugby now lacks invention. Yet in 2019, 56% of tries were scored from two or fewer rucks and 53% of tries were scored off the back of four or more passes. This is rugby at its best.

The players are far more skilful, a side-effect of not having to fit training around a second job. Forwards can no longer make themselves scarce until it is time for a scrum. Arguably the biggest change in rugby has been the vast improvement in the skill level of forwards.

As incredible as Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennett, David Campese et al might have been, they were performing their magic against less skilful and less fit players. Their modern-day equivalents are doing the same thing against people who have been pros since they were 16.”

David Campese v Italy

Legend: but would Campo have scored all those Test tries against modern defences? (Getty Images)

BBC Scotland’s chief sports reporter and RW contributor
“Back in the day, us young guns in Ireland used to chide the older scribblers when they bemoaned the arrival of professionalism. I can’t say they were wholly right, but they weren’t nearly as wrong as I thought they were. The more that time passes, the more I feel myself drifting into old fogey territory.

Here are my beefs – or at least some of them. Media handlers. Players are too often cosseted, their personalities kept under lock and key. Previously, you watched guys perform, then drank with them in the clubhouse.

Covering the All-Ireland League was a weekly joy, until professionalism came along and those brilliant rivalries and the craic that went with them slowly ebbed away. Great clubs in Ireland and Scotland and Wales are bit-part players now, there but largely forgotten. A sin.

Teams used to tour in the amateur era. Proper tours to weird and wonderful places. Stories? How long have you got? There are few proper tours left. Something special has been lost.

Tom English

Fist pump: Tom English (left) at Scotstoun in 2017, proving he can still get excited about rugby! (Inpho)

Teams play too much rugby. The game has become too expensive, too attritional, too dangerous, too lacking in too many of the qualities we loved about it in the first place. The best defence wins. Free spirits are a dying breed. It’s sad.

Self-interest rules in all corners to the point that the Lions, another sacred entity, are forever endangered by players being too exhausted to deliver their best.

I’m ranting. Rugby is still a delight but the old boys had a point. I know that now.”

1989 Lions tour

Proper tour: Mike Teague and Wade Dooley have a beer after the third Lions Test in 1989 (Getty Images)

What do you think? Email your views to rugbyworldletters@futurenet.com

This debate first appeared in the July 2020 issue of Rugby World.