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Squidge Rugby’s Will Owen on how rugby can let itself grow

In the words of legendary rugby referee Nigel Owens “This is not soccer”, but maybe it should be.

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Rugby fans have long forced the idea that rugby holds higher moral values over its much bigger footballing brother, but why?

Is rugby really a fundamentally better sport than football, or is this just middle-class propaganda?

‘We’re not like football’

As one half of popular YouTube channel Squidge Rugby, Will Owen argues the sport is playing catch-up, making amends for its historically weak marketing.

He said: “Saying ‘we’re not like football’ alienates such a large part of your audience by saying a certain type of person plays rugby.

“Saying ‘in rugby we’re the sort of people who reflect these values’ sounds like a compliment, but it is backhanded as you’re saying these are the only people in rugby.

“There are obvious positives in saying we turn people around and do positive things, but at the same time I feel it’s taken rugby media until quite recently to realise how narrow-minded that sounds.”

Often seen as a hallmark of the sport, the ‘rugby values’ narrative seems to highlight an insecurity, as though rugby must constantly prove its worth by belittling rival sports.

In a time when the domestic game is struggling, Owen says that the sport needs to look beyond itself to grow.

He said: “Instead of going ‘why are you rolling around on the floor? Why are you diving? Why are you not respecting the ref?’ to football fans, we should say ‘you’re a bigger sport than us, but you can like us a little bit’.

“We have a similar skill-set with the kicking and looking into space. That’s not just football, that’s any other sport, trying to see what common ground you can make.”

Showcasing personalities

England international Ellis Genge received criticism for drinking a beer and brandishing his team’s critics as ‘sausages’ in his post-match interview after scoring the winner against Scotland in 2020.

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However, rugby is starting to see the value in promoting the personalities within the game.

Netflix’s Six Nations: Full Contact is evidence of this – bringing the players and coaches to the fore.

Owen said: “Clearly the point there is to appeal to other markets and sell rugby players to other markets. The difference is that if somebody saw a rugby documentary on BBC One, they probably wouldn’t watch it unless they were into rugby already.

“They are clearly trying to make personalities in rugby, promoting the likes of Finn Russell and Marcus Smith.”

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This year’s Six Nations has seen the universal introduction of player names on jerseys.

Owen said: “I think it is really important if you’ve never seen rugby before and you see a remarkable piece of skill by say Finn Russell, you can look at that, and then you hear the commentator say ‘Finn Russell’ and his position.

“At that point you’ve gained a little bit of rugby knowledge. The same goes for people who play rugby week in week out but won’t know the Italy players, besides one or two of them.

“Let’s say England are playing Chile, a lot of people who are established rugby fans will tune into that only knowing the England players. That’s not because they don’t like the game, it’s just because we’ve not turned these guys into household names yet.

“If they look at that and go ‘oh, Rodrigo Fernández, he’s a good player for Chile’. That immediately broadens their horizons.”

The power of the individual is something that Premiership Women’s Rugby have understood with their relaunch this season.

Their ‘Powered Differently’ campaign saw players presented not as rugby players, but as fashionable individuals.

This will help rugby grow the sport beyond its current confines, bringing rugby beyond its amateur origins.

Capturing Generation Z

The rugby media is right to be concerned, professional services company EY found last year that the sport is not even in the top ten sports for Generation Z by engagement in the UK.

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Social media is crucial if rugby wants to survive the 21st century, this is where the likes of Squidge Rugby become so important.

Owen said: “Rugby has to look into markets like TikTok and YouTube, and champion anything that will get the game seen by people, because it’s a niche sport that only a certain demographic is going to be interested in.

“It is a difficult sport to understand, the more that is out there that can try and help with that. I’m sure there are people on TikTok who are trying to get that out there and explain the basics of rugby.”

Owen says that this should be a widespread push, with fans being allowed to produce content beyond official accounts.

This is starting to happen, with TikTok an official partner of the Six Nations, having been the title sponsor of the 2022 and 2023 Women’s Six Nations and giving the women’s game greater exposure.

England Rugby recently worked with influencer Jarryd Harris, better known as ‘The Rugby Guy’, for their spotlight coverage of grassroots rugby.

England Rugby also gave YouTube group the Sidemen unrestricted access to Twickenham Stadium for a huge game of hide and seek, putting the sport in the view of more than 20 million subscribers.

There is still admittedly a long way to go, with the Squidge Rugby channel publicly struggling with World Rugby over copyright issues during last year’s World Cup.

Social media is an area that, if harnessed effectively, can really grow the game.

Owen said: “I’ve recently been getting really into Riaan Louw’s videos, who is extremely knowledgeable and humorous about rugby around the world. Stuff like that is brilliant.

“It’s such a different kind of voice on rugby than you’d get television. I really hope in the next couple of years, ahead of the next World Cup and the Women’s World Cup in 2025, that as many people will be able to share stuff like this as possible.”

Knowing your market

Rugby has also begun to look inward for growth – the success of this year’s Rugby Europe Championship is owed largely to their shrewd marketing.

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Owen said: “They are not clashing with the Six Nations, because 90 percent of their market will be rugby fans from outside of the nations that are playing who want to watch the Six Nations as a priority.

“They’ve gone ‘here’s a warm-up for the Six Nations, its Netherland vs Germany’, and you will watch that and think it is a great game. After the Six Nations you then think, ‘why don’t I watch Portugal vs Poland?’”

Similarly, the Women’s Six Nations moved away from being played after the conclusion of the men’s tournament to give the women’s game its own spotlight.

Unsurprisingly, rugby fans watch more rugby when it is made to be easily accessible.


  • Henry Ollis-Brown

    Henry is a sports journalist with a passion for rugby and motorsports. He is a keen supporter of Harlequins and England rugby. He can normally be found researching an obscure fact to put into an article.