Jacob Whitehead talks to Squidge Rugby about how he has carved out a career with his rugby videos
The Rise of the Rugby YouTuber
We now devour rugby more than ever before. Matches are live tweeted from around the globe, tries from the most unlikely places find their way onto our screens and the social media teams of top sides are attempting to create their own sanitised version of Big Brother through their marketing videos.
One thing that most people still don’t associate with rugby is humour, but Squidge Rugby, aka 24-year-old YouTuber Robbie Owen, is trying to change all that.
For Owen, the most surreal moment of his new career came after a trip to the cinema to watch the latest Mission Impossible film.
“I came out two-and-a-half hours later having seen the film, turned my phone on, and I had over 200 Twitter notifications,” he tells Rugby World. “My brother texted me saying, ‘Sam liked your video’, so I opened Twitter and Sam Warburton had tweeted me saying, ‘I’m glad you appreciated the dark arts of the back row!’”
The week before Wales captain Warburton had retired after an eight-year international career, prompting Owen, a die-hard Welsh fan, to create an 11-minute ode to him via his YouTube channel. When he posted it, just before entering the cinema, he didn’t think it would resonate in the manner it did.
“It hit me that these people I’m talking about might see it,” he says. “I’m part of that rugby community, rather than just being that squeaky, hairy guy on the outside.”
Squidge Rugby videos have quickly gained a reputation as a fresh insight into a sport that often takes itself too seriously. Blending tactical analysis to make Joe Schmidt jealous with humour that could make even Owen Farrell laugh, he has quickly racked up almost 100,000 subscribers on YouTube – that’s only 10,000 less than the official England Rugby channel.
His videos have touched on almost every rugby topic under the sun: subjects from Samoan Rugby: The Musical to the Communist history behind Russian rugby. He has analysed the defensive systems of every nation in the World Cup, dissected Conor Murray’s box-kicking and called out Israel Folau’s homophobia.
When asked what sparked his interest in providing humorous rugby videos, Owen is clear: “I’d often wondered why no one was providing this content. Why was no one doing this stuff? Why is it a completely untapped market?”
Only one thing got in the way. “I accidentally got a job,” Owen laughs. “I turned up for an interview to please a friend, was told I was the only person who turned up, so I’d got the job. I worked for UPS for two months and, as anyone who watches the videos can see, I am not a man made for heavy lifting!
“I spent all day, every day, thinking about other things I could do and I wrote my first video, on the Ospreys, whilst doing that. I quit on the first day I could, and the next day bought a new computer and editing software. The day after that I wrote the video and gave myself a month to really throw myself into it.”
Squidge Rugby has never looked back; uploads have become more frequent and slicker. A Patreon account has helped with money after he quit his job and it looks like this career is tailormade for a man of Owen’s background.
He was born on the day that Jonah Lomu squashed Mike Catt en route to scoring four tries against England in the 1995 Rugby World Cup – catnip for a passionate Welsh fan. But as he was born and raised in Nottingham, how did he end up singing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau?
Owen laughs, slightly self-conscious of his Midlands background. “Dad is very, very Welsh, to an extreme degree. He would somehow manage to get BBC Radio Wales to play in cars in Nottingham. Rugby was always there in the background, and once a year we’d get out of school due to a ‘family emergency’ to watch a Friday night game in the Millennium.
“I hadn’t massively bought into it until the 2008 Grand Slam. At half-time against England my mum called me and my brother downstairs to watch the rest of the game. She wanted to us to keep Dad in check.”
From the moment Mike Phillips dotted down in the corner to seal Wales’ comeback at Twickenham, Owen was hooked and became a Rugby World subscriber during the Lions tour a year later.
Having “made rubbish little animations and edited trailers for games” as a young kid and then toured in a sketch comedy troupe during his university days, he desperately needed a creative outlet. Rugby was the natural answer, with the Squidge Rugby moniker borne from a childhood nickname.
One of the best things about watching his videos is the minute detail of the analysis, but this hasn’t been gained from any sort of playing career. Having played briefly as a child for Nottingham Boots Corsairs, he quickly realised a career in the sport wasn’t going to be for him.
“We once had Freddie Tuilagi come down to Nottingham and do a training session for us. The problem was that he thought we were the Nottingham RFC academy. After the warm-up he realised we were massively unfit and just beasted us on fitness the entire time. I held a tackle-bag for Tuilagi – a man the size of a small city – and that did not go well.”
Instead of playing, Owen watches rugby almost obsessively, often watching nine or ten games in a single weekend – more during international windows. “I don’t want to calculate it, to work out the hours,” he laughs.
If doing a video on a single match, he’ll watch that game four or five times, as well as imbibing analysis from respected pundits to inform his own. “Can you call it self-taught if you’ve read every book on the subject?”
His humour is often similarly prepared and refined. As well as writing down jokes in a little notebook when they come to him – look out for one on Bryan Habana in a later video – he is often led down a research wormhole in the hunt for laughs.
“At one point I ended up reading 130 pages of Georgian epic poetry from the 14th century because I though there might be some reference to scrummaging in there. There wasn’t – it was a waste of my time!”
There have also been a few challenges in Squidge Rugby’s brief history. For instance, a few angry comments left after Owen called out Israel Folau’s homophobia in one of his longest videos to date. The video went viral and he even ended up experiencing the surreal feeling of being on Australian breakfast news.
“Rugby is inclusive and it is supportive,” he says firmly. “I’ve built a platform here and it’s important I use it for something. Here’s a guy using his platform in a way I think is unequivocally wrong – to marginalise an already marginalised group. The whole way that rugby overall has reacted to Folau has shown how supportive it is and how it should be.”
The rugby community rallied round the Squidge Rugby channel once more during the summer after the Six Nations made a copyright claim against the channel. His videos had enough strikes against them to be deleted from YouTube within a week, creating an existential threat for his newly-found livelihood.
“It was an absolute nightmare, but thankfully the community rallied behind the channel and my work, and the Six Nations deserve enormous kudos for listening to the fans and removing the strikes,” he says on how the issue was amicably resolved.
“It went from a hugely scary evening to a hugely reassuring, gratifying morning. I realised that what I do really meant something to people, and they were willing to take my corner. Then Wales beat England to go to number one in the world rankings and it got even better.”
Owen is currently in Japan covering the World Cup and has been hit with similar problems given the strict rules governing tournament footage. More videos have been taken down from YouTube and he has switched to a different platform in Vimeo to get his content out there.
Despite the current issues, it is clear that Owen and his Squidge Rugby channel have created unique videos that are proving hugely popular with rugby fans.
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