The East Terrace
Tennis merger to be made official
December 3, 2009
Maria Sharapova could soon be the new face of rugby © Getty Images
The International Rugby Board (IRB) is to meet with representatives from the highest levels of world tennis to hold talks about a possible merger between the two sports.
Officials from both the IRB and the International Tennis Federation are to meet in London in the next few weeks for preliminary discussions about creating a new 'super sport'.
Whilst the two sports appear to have little in common, recent developments in top flight rugby union have seen a strong parallel develop between the games and IRB officials wish to capitalise on this to help expand rugby's appeal to television and sponsors.
In the last six months rugby matches have seen a dramatic increase in so called 'ping pong kicking battles' in which the ball is kicked ad nauseum between the opposing sides as neither team wishes to risk being turned over in contact and surrender vital possession. The increase in the 'tennis style kicking' is attributed to the current interpretations by referees at the breakdown.
"We believe that by combining two high profile sports we can appeal to a wider audience," said an IRB spokesman at a press conference in Dublin. "Rugby is not only a sport but also a business and we have to run it as such. We have to appeal to different audience demographics and a possible hybrid version of rugby and tennis is something that will attract television and corporate sponsors."
A further attraction of the possible merger is the potential blending of major tournaments and events from both sports.
"What could be better than a tournament that was a hybrid of Wimbledon and the Six Nations?" asked Andrews. " For all intents and purposes what we currently have on the rugby field is effectively tennis with just a handful of scrums, tackles and lineouts mixed in. With just a few law amendments we are confident that the two sports can become one with almost no discernable difference noticeable to the fans of either game. We can bring tennis fans to Twickenham and rugby fans to Flushing Meadows."
IRB officials also are keen to use the exposure that high profile tennis stars such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova and the Williams sisters would bring to the new version of rugby.
"We believe that these players would be an enormous asset to rugby. They would immediately raise the sport's profile and bring our sport to the attention of important markets such as the USA, Russia, Switzerland and Spain. It's something we have to consider. I know that the USA coaches would also be delighted to have the likes of Serena Williams shore up their often rocky scrum as well."
As well as a rise in 'ping pong' kicking, there has also been a marked decrease in tries scored in the elite game in recent times and, as a result, a proliferation of low scoring games. A trend which, if it were to continue, could see a fall off in television ratings, gate receipts and thus, in the long term, vital sponsorship.
Andrews believes that rugby's scoring system should be based upon tennis: "If we used a scoring style based on tennis, for example, we would see a much higher scoring game and, as a result, a more exciting one. Perhaps 15 points each time you kick a ball into the opponents half and they fail to return it? Then there is a reason to the kicking and it no longer becomes a pointless exercise. This can only be good for the game."
As well as on field problems for rugby at present, there has been a worrying rise in spectator injuries. Latest statistics reveal that in the 2009 November Tests over five hundred fans attending the games suffered serious neck injuries from the constant effort of following the long and seemingly endless kicking bouts between the two sides.
The proposed talks have already received barbed criticism from rugby purists who are appalled at the possible unification of what they see as two alien sports.
"Once again we are faced with law makers looking to fiddle with the game's fundamentals," said Richard Evans, a rugby historian for the RFU. "Since professionalism those running the game seem to be obsessed with trying to make the game appeal to a wider audience. They do this whatever the cost is to not only the game itself, but the fans and players that made the game what it is today. We have to accept that we are never going to compete with soccer as a mass spectator sport and neither should we try. We should respect the traditions of the game and, as we forgot most of the awful ELVS, we should forget any ideas of a merger.
"Having said that, if I get to see the Russian team play with Maria Sharapova rolling around in the mud I am all for it."
James Stafford is editor of The East Terrace (www.theeastterrace.com) - an offside view of life in the rugby world