Is rugby better than football?

Dan Carter

Dan Carter: photo by Quintin Smith

Last week I found myself in some sort of broad agreement with David Beckham. A rather discombobulating experience it was too but nevertheless I must admit to the truth of it.

In fact it’s been an altogether discombobulating sort of a week for me regarding former Manchester United players as I’ve caught myself developing a certain respect for Gary Neville and wishing him somewhat well in his endeavours at Valencia.

This is of course a strange sensation because the first rule of being a Liverpool fan is that you hate Gary Neville. I presume myself to still be a Liverpool fan, in fact a reinvigorated one under Mr. Klopp, but it is a peculiar world I appear to have entered. Anyway, back to my bemusement with Beckham …

The issue on which we agree (at least partially) is rugby. It was reported recently that Beckham expressed a preference for going to rugby games over football matches as there is “no nastiness” between fans at the former.

Beckham’s comments came only a month or so after I’d heard something very similar from my brother. It was the day that we took my son to his first ever football match (the subject of my previous post) and it was certainly one to put you off football for life; a rather unfortunate start then for Toma. My brother described it as the worst game he’d ever seen and he’s a man who has seen a lot of football.

After the match finished we hurried back to my Dad’s place in order to watch Scotland v Australia in the quarter final of the Rugby World Cup.  Arriving just in time to open a beer as the national anthems were being sung, my brother said: “Here we go. I think I actually prefer rugby to football these days.”

I confidently predicted that there would be little to enjoy as a Scotland fan over the course of the next 80 minutes. He, being somehow devoid of the pessimism that afflicts most Scottish supporters (of any sport), predicted that we would win.

He was very nearly right. It was a riveting game of rugby that was a million times more entertaining than the dire encounter we’d witnessed at Tannadice earlier in the day. Scotland suffered a familiar – and particularly acute even by our standards – brave defeat courtesy of a dubious late penalty.

The referee, seemingly having realised that he had erred, sprinted to the dressing room immediately upon blowing the final whistle, leaving behind a rather relieved looking Australian side and a thoroughly disconsolate Scottish one.

It was interesting that the ref had felt the need to flee. Had such a situation arisen on a football pitch then his actions would have made perfect sense. On a rugby pitch, less so.

The reason for that is partly why I find myself asking the question, is rugby better than football? On the issue of respect for referees, it undoubtedly is. Would the Scottish players have confronted the referee at the end of the game if he hadn’t exited quicker than Usain Bolt in search of Chicken McNuggets? Possibly, but not aggressively, and they would still have shaken his hand.

At a football match, the ref could expect to find himself surrounded, jostled, sworn at, and generally treated with the sort of respect that Jeremy Kyle specialises in with the guests on his show.

Watch a football match this weekend and see how long it takes for the referee to be abused. And by abused I mean a level of intimidation that would probably warrant an arrest if it occurred on the street. My guess is it will happen before half time. You’re very unlikely to see such behaviour if you’re watching a rugby match.

The same is true off the field as Beckham correctly pointed out. Rugby’s lack of nastiness between rival sets of fans means that they don’t have to be segregated. Alcohol can be sold at the stadiums with little concern that it will fuel violence.

And don’t mistake a lack of nastiness for a lack of atmosphere. Rugby crowds are every bit as partisan and noisy as football ones, they just don’t feel the urge to throw coins at each other for example. They attend matches with some sort of strange notion of enjoying the game rather than revelling in a confected hatred of the opposition support.

Beckham is surely right that a rugby match is generally a better environment to take kids into than a football match. That’s not to say I haven’t seen a few idiots in attendance at rugby games, but they are certainly fewer and further between than those I’ve encountered at the football.

It’s always a remarkable sight to see grown men, beer bellies straining against their replica ‘performance’ tops, shouting obscenities at one of their own players to suggest that said player may have been a little over-enthusiastic in the pie shop and consequently a touch short of pace. There’s usually a profusion of pie being ejected from their own mouths as this tirade proceeds in between bites.

Respect in rugby also applies between players on the field. This is most evident in the lack of the biggest scourge of modern football – diving. Rugby players simply don’t do it, they don’t feign injury, they don’t go in for that sort of gamesmanship. They are, in short (though often very tall), real men.

They would be thoroughly embarrassed to roll around like Robben, swoon like Suarez, or fall like Fabregas. Rugby players apparently retain a sense of shame. It’s something that’s almost entirely absent in football these days. Watch a football match this weekend and you will almost certainly witness at least one blatant dive.

Given all of this, you’d be forgiven for wondering why I bother with football at all. Rugby is a great game and I’m a big fan for the reasons described above and many more. It’s probably 50/50 as to whether the next sporting event I take Toma to is rugby or football.

But I still prefer football. It remains my first and true sporting love. I once took part in a debate at school. The proposition was ‘football requires more skill than rugby.’ I, as captain of the school football team, was arguing in favour of the motion. The captain of the rugby team (a somewhat sturdier schoolboy than I) was my opponent.

I think I won although that may have been largely the result of football being more popular at my school than rugby rather than any particular oratorical brilliance on my part. I remember arguing that it was much easier and more natural for us to use our hands than our feet. We use our hands for writing and for eating (mind you, anyone who’s been in the general vicinity of my attempts to use chopsticks will realise that manipulating things with our hands can still go badly wrong).

I should confess at this point that I’ve never played much rugby, a matter of some regret in all honesty, but it’s always been a healthy sense of self-preservation that has prevented me. I therefore don’t have a full appreciation of the skill that the game involves.

The scrum for instance remains entirely mysterious to me: I’m not sure who thought the best way to restart a game following certain infringements was to require the insertion of heads between rows of buttocks and then have the respective front rows grasp each other as though about to commence a sumo contest before invariably collapsing on top of each other and having to do it all over again.

Football is a simpler game and that is the primary reason for its universal appeal. Anywhere I’ve travelled in the world I’ve seen kids kicking (not throwing) a ball around. In dark alleys in Mumbai, on beaches in Bali, at the edge of the Malaysian jungle, I’ve seen makeshift goalposts and games in progress. It is the global game and anyone can play.

Ultimately, today, I think of rugby v football as a tale of two number 10s. I enjoyed the Rugby World Cup and marvelled at some of the play, especially by the All Blacks. Dan Carter, the New Zealand 10, was the star of the tournament and cemented his position as one of the greatest players (some have argued the case that he’s the greatest) of all time.

Football has its own number 10 who is indisputably the greatest of the current era and quite probably the greatest of all time: Lionel Messi. To watch Carter and Messi is to watch two incredible sportsmen extending the boundaries of their sport. They are both marvels, professionals, and remarkably humble given their talent.

Carter is stronger, faster. Both are immensely quick witted and stunningly intelligent in the way that they play. Both can leave you shaking your head in wonder. But Messi produces that reaction more often and the disbelief is of a different magnitude.

Despite not having played much rugby I could just about conceive of doing what Carter does if I had hours and hours and hours of practice. I have spent hours playing football yet still Messi’s ability remains something that seems to belong to a different realm altogether.

One of Carter’s tackles would probably break my jaw; Messi makes my jaw drop, almost every time he takes to the pitch.

Rugby is a glorious, riotous, and heroic game. But you can’t watch Messi and tell me that football isn’t better.

Leo Messi

Leo Messi: photo by Marc Puig i Perez

Is football too insular?



Clive Woodward. Photo by Doha Stadium Plus Qatar,

Last month, Europe retained the Ryder Cup. Captain Paul McGinley has been lauded for his leadership, attention to detail, and decision making. One of the things he decided to do was have Alex Ferguson address the team on the eve of the tournament. McGinely didn’t choose Ferguson just because of his legendary powers of inspiration and motivation; he wanted him to talk about something specific: how to deal with being heavy favourites.

By consulting Ferguson, McGinley showed a willingness and ability to look beyond golf to learn lessons and find ways to help his team. He also apparently referenced Team Sky in the Tour de France when talking to his players about how the team would function. My question today is whether, unlike McGinley, football is rather too insular when it comes to learning from other sports? I think it is.

Possibly the most famous example of a football club looking to another sport was the appointment of Clive Woodward as performance director at Southampton in the summer of 2005. Two summer’s earlier Woodward had coached England’s rugby union side to victory in the Rugby World Cup. Like McGinley, Woodward was revered for his attention to detail and desire to learn.

The reaction to Woodward’s appointment was hardly surprising. Henry Winter wrote in The Telegraph: ‘Woodward should go away, avoid interviews, acquire all his coaching badges, learn the ropes and then apply to work as a youth-team coach somewhere.’ Winter seemed miffed that Woodward hadn’t ‘paid his dues’ in football.

What a silly and ignorant attitude. Woodward didn’t pay his dues in football but he certainly paid his coaching dues and acquired outstanding credentials along with a world cup winner’s medal. Winter hailed Sam Allardyce as someone who’s made it to top level management in football by paying the appropriate dues, even driving the ‘Fiesta van’ when youth team coach at Preston North End. Such experiences, Winter writes, ‘cannot be found in the manuals Woodward pores over.’

True – assuming of course that Woodward wasn’t reading a manual on Fiesta vans – but also entirely incidental to being a top class coach. I have a lot of respect for Big Sam and I actually doubt he would share Winter’s attitude. Allardyce has always been a keen student of the game and of sport science. West Ham fans however may be forgiven for occasionally wondering if he wouldn’t be better off coaching a rugby team.

In the same article Winter refers to Mourinho’s apprenticeship under Robson and van Gaal and the information he ‘absorbed’ from them. As apprenticeships go, the special one got a special one but has there ever been a football manager that did more poring over manuals than Mourinho? He seems to have been quite successful.

A superb insight into Woodward’s methods was provided in an interview he gave to the Guardian just before this summer’s World Cup. The subject was penalties; England travelled to Brazil having lost on penalties in six of the past 10 major finals that they had played in.

Woodward recalled an exercise he did with Southampton’s academy players. He asked them to take 10 penalties each. There was no goalkeeper, just two ropes hanging down from the crossbar around three feet inside each post and the aim was to hit as many penalties as possible between the rope and the post. All of the penalties were filmed by four different cameras.

The results were not good. A couple of days later the players were called to a video analysis session. They were shown their ten penalties and for most, each time their run-up, foot position or body shape was different. “Everything was different,” Woodward remembered, “but to kick a stationary ball, you need to have the same routine, to do the same things over and over again.”

The master of that as Woodward pointed out is Jonny Wilkinson, who would spend hours practising, working on his foot position and honing his technique to withstand the most intense pressure. Footballers should do the same and it’s clear that some do but by no means all. The responsibility also rests with the coach though.

According to Woodward: “There’s a big body of football people who are terrified of it, who are saying: ‘You can’t coach this.’ That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard! I think the FA should employ a specialist penalty-kicking coach. And listen: it wouldn’t just make them better penalty-takers but better footballers. The whole team should be doing it. This is about striking a dead ball, but if you strike a dead ball well, you will be able to strike a moving ball better too.”

Woodward lasted just over a year at Southampton and it seems he and his methods were never exactly embraced by the various managers and coaching staff that worked alongside him. Of course the concept of specialist coaches is not entirely absent in football, it’s increasingly common these days to find coaches employed to work specifically with the strikers or defenders and the position of goalkeeping coach has been around for a long time.

I would argue though that the level of such specialisation in football is not as far advanced as it is in other sports such as rugby or American football. One interesting exception is the case of Gianni Vio in Italy. Until a few years ago, Vio worked in a bank but in his spare time he wrote a website devoted to strategies for set-pieces. Eventually he wrote a book as well.

Former Italy goalkeeper Walter Zenga discovered Vio as a result of the book and got in touch. At the time Zenga was coaching Red Star Belgrade. He invited Vio onto his coaching staff in a part-time role. Zenga took Vio with him when he returned to Italy to coach Catania. From there, Vio went to Fiorentina and this summer moved to Milan.

Zenga says of Vio: “He isn’t just a free-kick wizard. He is like having a 15- or 20-goal striker in the team. A 20-goal a season player can get injured. He can get suspended. But there are set-pieces in every game. Always. And he knows how to exploit them best.” Woodward would surely approve.

It doesn’t surprise me in the least that this innovation happened abroad rather than in British football. Arsene Wenger practically professionalised English football when he joined Arsenal in the mid-1990s and even today it seems as though many British footballers fail to appreciate the level of sacrifice required to make the most of their careers as professional athletes.

There’s a lot that British players can learn (and indeed have learned) from their foreign peers but equally there’s a lot that could be learned from other athletes. Anyone who has watched Andy Murray train can only be impressed at his utter devotion to being the best he can possibly be and his willingness to consult various specialists to improve all aspects of his physical and mental performance. I’m sure footballers would also have benefited from watching Woodward put Jonny Wilkinson and co through their paces in preparation for the Rugby World Cup.

Perhaps the biggest benefit that could come of football shedding its insularity would be in the development of kids and young players. There’s so much that kids can learn by playing a wide variety of sports from an early age. The best advocate of this is Judy Murray.

She has a wonderful initiative – Set 4 Sport – which is all about helping parents teach kids agility, balance and coordination, as well as passing and catching, through fun games. Visit the site at where you can find out more and download a free book.

The programme was born in Judy’s back garden as she tried to entertain and encourage her sons. As she says: “They went on to become pretty decent tennis players as you know, but Jamie has a 3 handicap at golf and Andy once trialled with Glasgow Rangers.”

So if you have high hopes for your child excelling at football then of course give them a ball and let them play freely and naturally. But don’t just stop there. Wouldn’t it be an exceptional footballer that had the strength of a gymnast, the balance of a boxer, the bravery of a rugby player, the mental strength of a golfer or a tennis player, and the analytical mind of a chess player?

Oh, and one more thing. Make sure they practise penalties.