Skip to main content

The worst ideas in rugby history

Gregor Paul

The XV is by no means averse to humour. We recognise the need for levity that in these uncertain times it’s not such a bad thing to occasionally have an irreverent take on the lighter side of the game. Our mission to not take ourselves too seriously starts by remembering those occasions when what seemed like a great idea at the time, turned out to catastrophic.

8: Wallabies Ignore the Haka

The XV is by no means averse to humour. We recognise the need for levity that in these uncertain times it’s not such a bad thing to occasionally have an irreverent take on the lighter side of the game. Our mission to not take ourselves too seriously starts by remembering those occasions when what seemed like a great idea at the time, turned out to catastrophic.

8: Wallabies Ignore the Haka

At some time or another in history, most international teams have hatched what they hoped would be a cunning plan to unsettle the All Blacks during the haka. 

Some have memorably worked – England’s inverse line-up in Yokohama in 2019; France’s arrowhead formation in 2011; Ireland’s No 8 as tribute to Anthony Foley in 2016.

Other plans have gone awry in a big way. None more so than when the Wallabies decided in 1996 to blithely ignore the haka when the two teams met in Wellington for the first Bledisloe Cup clash of the professional age.

When the All Blacks began the haka, the Wallabies were under the posts at Athletic Park, working their way through various ball-handling drills.

The All Blacks were riled by the snub. They found it disrespectful and used their ire to produce one of the great performances of all time, winning by a record 43-6. 

In atrocious conditions, they made just three unforced errors, while the Wallabies were shambolic.

Wallabies coach Greg Smith would say after the game: “I have no problem with the haka – it’s an act people like to see, but it’s really got nothing to do with our team.”

Funnily enough, the Wallabies have never tried to ignore the haka since.

7: Budge Gets Tied Down

The pettiness of the Scottish Rugby Union is legendary, the organisation’s reputation for penny-pinching solidified by its crusade against former captain Budge Pountney to collect £7.50 from him.

The crusade was a bad idea as it led to Pountney unexpectedly and dramatically quitting international rugby in early 2003, and in doing so, painted a horrific picture of the SRU, suggesting the meanness and pedantry of the organisation was villainous. 

Among other things, Pountney revealed that after Scotland beat South Africa for the first time in 33 years in November 2002, there was a fax behind the team hotel bar from the union stating clearly there was to be no free drink for any of the players. 

He said there was often no water available at training and the one that really got him – being hounded to reimburse £7.50 for a Scotland tie he had kindly given to a broken-hearted supporter.

He told The Scotsman: “I’m still getting regular demands from the SRU because I gave my Scotland tie to a young kid who was flying home to London with his dad after watching us lose to New Zealand. Him and his dad were both in kilts and a bit upset that we’d lost, and I just felt it might help cheer him up. It did, but the SRU just don’t see that.” Ouch.

6: England Running the Ball in 1991

England had made it to the final of the 1991 World Cup by playing stoic, up-the- jumper stuff. Their set-piece was superb, they rolled the mauls beautifully, tackled venomously and played the most effective tight, driving-grinding-kicking game. 

It was what they were good at. It was what they had the players for. But inexplicably, come the final against the Wallabies, they tried to run the ball from everywhere. The problem was, they were not born with French flair.

You see, they were bullied into it by Australian wing David Campese who spent the week leading up to the game, goading England in the press, saying they just weren’t capable of playing pass and catch.

Rather than ignore the notorious motor-mouth, England reacted, had a team meeting and decided to prove him wrong. Or rather the backs did because frankly, none of the forwards cared about pass and catch rugby and some of them probably didn’t even know what it was.

“On the day, given the amount of ball the forwards won and the way we dominated up front I think we should have won by about 50 points,” lamented tight-head prop Jeff Probyn years later. 

“I remember we had a meeting before the game to discuss tactics and it was decided we would continue to play a forward orientated game but open up when we could. But as soon as we got on the field the game-plan seemed to fall apart.” 

Campese laughed all the way up Twickenham’s steps to collect his winner’s medal.

David Campese
Nick Farr-Jones and David Campese lift the 1991 World Cup (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

5: All Blacks Reconditioning Programme 2007

Graham Henry didn’t make a lot of mistakes as All Blacks coach, but when he did, they tended to be spectacular. 

His biggest was the ill-fated, so-called reconditioning programme which arguably cost the All Blacks the 2007 World Cup.

In 2005 and 2006 the All Blacks were just about untouchable. They won 23 out of 25 tests, many of which using their second team. Those victories included a 3-0 series clean sweep against the Lions and a 47-3 demolition of France. 

On their end of year tour in 2006, they scored 40-points plus against England, France and Wales. The All Blacks were the best team in the world; their B-side was the second best team in the world. But Henry began to obsess about burn out. He became paranoid that the All Blacks were going to reach September 2007 with nothing in the tank and half their players missing through injury.

So he decided to keep their 22 best players out of the first seven rounds of Super 14 in 2007 to rest and recondition.

In theory it was a good idea. In practice it was a terrible idea with blanket programmes enforced, expectations and communication badly handled and individuals left frustrated and angry at not being part of their respective Super Rugby campaigns.

Most of the players reached June short of games, out of form and their confidence in tatters. It was a disaster and the All Blacks were knocked out in the quarter-final stages of the World Cup a shadow of the side they were in November 2006.

4: England’s Big Night Out in Queenstown

In retrospect, former England coach Martin Johnson probably regrets allowing his players a night out early in their 2011 World Cup campaign.

England had opened their tournament with a hard-fought victory against Argentina in Dunedin, after which they headed to the holiday resort of Queenstown for a few days recovery.

Johnson encouraged the lads to head out into town one night to have a few drinks, but it went horribly awry when centre Mike Tindall overindulged in the local brew and CCTV footage was leaked to the media of him in an embrace with a woman who was patently not his new wife.

It wouldn’t have been such a big deal had his other half not been Zara Phillips, grand-daughter of the Queen and within 48 hours the UK tabloid press pack descended upon New Zealand and followed the England team everywhere.

The scrutiny was relentless and it only got worse when Tindall couldn’t quite recount all the details of that night. Day by day, various new revelations would appear in print – such as it all began with the team partaking in some dwarf-tossing.

England were simply engulfed by the scandal and crashed out in the quarter-final to France. Their miserable time in New Zealand completed when a fresh-faced Manu Tuilagi was arrested for jumping off a ferry in Auckland as it came in to dock.

Tindall told the Daily Mail in 2012: “Obviously, it wasn’t ideal for me to end up as hammered as I was. That’s a given. People have done that in their lives before and I’m sure I won’t be the last person to get pissed and then realise it wasn’t a great idea to drink so much. It’s just that the reaction to my mistake turned into a roller-coaster I couldn’t control.”

3: Dancing with the Calcutta Cup

It might have been the frustration of being involved in what was the single most tedious international game of rugby ever played. Or it might just have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Whatever, Scotland flanker John Jeffrey and England No 8 Dean Richards decided after a dire 9-6 victory to the hosts in a 1988 Five Nations test at Murrayfield to take the Calcutta Cup out on the sauce with them.

Magic – the old trophy would surely love the chance to let its hair down and take in some of Edinburgh’s seediest night spots.

What it didn’t appreciate was being used as a football in the early hours. Obviously worse for wear, the two players kicked the trophy through Edinburgh’s cobbled streets and returned it badly damaged in the morning.

The upshot? One massive repair bill, a six-month ban for Jeffrey and curiously, somewhat unjustly, a one-week stand-down for Richards.

“Myself and Dean did take it out on the town, and it came back damaged,” said Jeffrey. “For that we have to hold our hands out and take our punishment. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but what annoys me is the disparity in the punishment between myself and Deano.”

Nigel Melville
After the 1988 Calcutta Cup clash, matters took a turn for the worse (Credit: Russell Cheyne/Allsport)

2: England’s Grand Slam Nike Advert

It was understandable that England’s key commercial partner, Nike, wanted to have a TV advert ready to run immediately should their client have beaten Ireland and secured a Grand Slam in the final Six Nations game of 2011.

These days sponsors have an inflated sense of ownership and entitlement and are always looking for the next great ad campaign in the hope it will go viral on social media.

England’s rugby bosses should never have agreed – the potential for egg to splatter over faces was too large. But, and there’s always a but, the suits reasoned, that the commercial rewards outweighed the reputational risks. Which was a giant mistake as that oeuf did indeed hit the protagonists right in the mush when England lost 23-6. 

Obviously someone involved in the making of the ad couldn’t resist letting it be known that the ad had been made prematurely and so it was put on the internet,  where the world was able to see the likes of Ben Foden, Toby Flood and Mark Cueto prancing around in celebration of being Grand Slam champions 2011.

Whoops. “It is disappointing that details of Nike’s internal planning has got into the public domain,” offered an RFU statement, way too late to save face.

“In no way did the RFU or the England team underestimate the challenge that the Ireland team would pose. We were well beaten by a team who played better and we have the utmost respect for [Ireland coach] Declan Kidney and the Irish players.” 

1: Kamp Staaldraad

Springboks coach Rudolf Straeuli thought his troops would benefit from attending a no frills boot camp ahead of the 2003 World Cup.

He left the team’s bodyguard, Adriaan Heijns, to take care of the details and the former SAS officer relished his task. 

And right there was the biggest mistake Straeuli made. Ex-SAS types are not renowned for their ability to distinguish between what is challenging but fun and what is simply a weekend for aspiring psychopaths.

The Boks headed to a Police camp in the bush near the town of Thabazimbi and the list of activities on the itinerary; players having to crawl naked into fox holes and have ice-cold water poured over them. Once down there, they were asked to sing the national anthem while loudspeakers boomed God Save the Queen and the haka. 

They also had to crawl naked over gravel and spend a night in the bush where they had to catch and kill chickens but not eat them. 

Footage from the camp was leaked by the team’s video analyst Dale McDermott who was ostracised by many in South African rugby as a result which led to depression before he tragically committed suicide.

Needless to say the Boks suffered a dismal World Cup where they were hammered by England in the pool rounds and the All Blacks in the quarter-final.

Straeuli lost his job and images of terrified Boks, standing naked in the dark holding rugby balls in front of their private bits became one of the enduring images of the World Cup.

“When I heard the reports I thought the training methods were barbaric and outdated. If we want to be counted as one of the rugby superpowers again we will have to be a lot more scientific,” opined South African Rugby Union chairman Rob van der Valk after stories of what happened began to leak.

“The time could have been better used promoting skills to get us back into the top three of world rugby, which is SA Rugby’s performance measurement.” 

An omnishambles of the highest order.