controversy

Breaking the rules

When a senior executive is urging customers to demand their money back from his organisation it would generally be assumed that something has gone badly wrong.

The case for a refund was strong. Many of those customers had been protesting they did not understand or appreciate what they had been sold and even some of the suppliers had admitted to being confused about their product and unhappy with their performance.

However the England v Italy Six Nations rugby union game at Twickenham was still a triumph despite the controversy, and the following Six Nations games with Wales v Ireland, England v Scotland and Italy v France continued to draw record attendances and TV audiences.

All those confused by the rules of rugby union – which probably includes most spectators and viewers as well as the England team – would have been even more confused by the England v Italy game.

The Italians, who were forecast to be destroyed, decided to minimise the massacre by not contesting for the ball after tackles enabling their players to disrupt England’s. The England players and supporters thought the Italians were breaking the rules but the referee disagreed and the tactic helped the Italians to take the lead before eventually losing as predicted.

England have won four out of four and are on course for a Grand Slam for the second year in a row but their reaction during and after the game did not reflect that reality.

Television viewers were treated to the sight of English players asking the referee to explain the rules of the sport they played professionally. England’s coach Eddie Jones said fans should “ask for their money back” and offered to pay back his own salary as there had not been any rugby while England player George Ford claimed the Italian tactic would “kill the game”.

But the game looks nowhere near death. The following matches were mainly sold out and total attendances for the Championship topped a million. Tickets at Twickenham cost up to £120 each and the ground was sold out for England v Scotland. Television audiences continued to climb and could beat last year’s average of 8.3 million watching live per game.

The Italian tactical innovation far from killing rugby provided a boost for a match which could have been a tedious procession of Englishmen smashing Italians for 80 minutes. Supporters in the ground might have loved that but the controversy and confusion raised the interest for TV viewers and it definitely engaged the media with the debate rumbling on for days.

The Six Nations is even a success on social media with around a million Facebook friends, 330,000 Twitter followers and more 200,000 Instagram fans. The Italian game was probably just the job for more followers.

What might have seemed a communications problem with supporters and television viewers confused by what they are watching has helped raise the profile of the game and got people talking about a sport which can struggle for interest against the all-powerful football.

And the England coach Eddie Jones – who is acknowledged as a media master by the rugby media – probably knew what he was doing when he focused on the Italians rather than his own team. He could have accepted that his players were to blame and that the Italians were just being clever.

But that would have handed the initiative to the Italians who after all had been soundly beaten and made his players look a bit stupid. Instead the focus was on the risk to the game and a debate kicked off which helps add more interest to a tournament which is already booming.

Dull and predictable is often something to aspire to in communications but the right sort of controversy handled well can be more powerful.

Written by Kevan Reilly, Director

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