Rugby can’t ignore contact issues and stoppages plaguing the game | rugby federation
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Rugby union’s best guns are gearing up for one last mission. This should make it one of the highest-profile weekends in the sport, with no less than four major decider series taking place on the same day. Not since the 2011 Rugby World Cup quarter-final weekend in New Zealand has the Southern Hemisphere hosted so many teams simultaneously with more at stake.
Exciting? Sure. But let’s not dodge the larger reality either. Regardless of the results of the series in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina, this is a critical moment for the sport at all levels. If future generations of fans are to be lured into the game – and diehards retained – there are lingering issues with its premium product that can’t be blithely ignored.
The first is glaringly obvious to all viewers, casual or not. Even those who love the gladiator element of rugby are starting to cringe. Take the Australia v England series. So far, after just two matches – and not counting the absentees who have never even flown to Australia – nine Wallabies and four members of the England squad have already been dropped from the series due to wound. That’s 13 players in all, which equates to about a third of the cast.
Imagine a major theatrical production in the West End with more than a dozen ‘substitute’ notes inserted into the programme. The director would be in tears, the audience appalled. He starts making Rollerball sound like badminton. And all of this as part of a concerted effort to try to make the sport much safer for its participants. Contact the sport or not, this level of attrition – whether broken bones, severe ligament damage or nasty head shots – is too much.
The extra power also changes the shape and feel of the game. Just the other day, the Breakdown sat down with a former Test captain, a creative but diminutive footballer. He feels he would have struggled to make it to Test level these days, with such great players and relentless physicality. For some of the greatest sportsmen of all time, shaking their heads at what they’re watching, even factoring in the nostalgia of “back in my day,” must be a concern.
Then there are the repeated stops. At one point it looked like the New Zealand v Ireland game was going to go on into the wee hours of the morning. Maps and replays on the big screen came and went, to the point that referee Jaco Peyper stayed on screen longer than the players. God knows what first-time rugby viewers made of it.
So kudos to Eddie Jones for wading into the debate. “The game is out of control,” the England head coach suggested at the weekend. “You saw the New Zealand v Ireland test and at one point the commentators couldn’t count the number of players on the pitch. Seriously. They had three backs packing a scrum. We went full hog where everything is a yellow card, everything is a red card. There has to be a little common sense that comes back into the game.”
He also identified – “It makes no sense” – one of the most frustrating laws in any sport: the yellow card for a failed interception attempt that doesn’t stick. Sin-binning a player who genuinely tries to catch a ball – unless it’s an obviously cynical knockdown – has become commonplace and, for fans in the southern hemisphere in particular, is becoming a huge inconvenience. Are legislators aware of reflex movements? Is fussy fanaticism about the letter of the law really the way to attract young viewers?
A reduction in box kicks would also be nice. Kicking the ball after a scrum, sure, but only after it’s been picked up and passed between at least one other pair of hands. That said, I asked an England striker last week to come up with a law change he would personally make and he came up with one that neither of us had considered. His proposal was to impose an offside line at the back of a maul to prevent opponents from “swimming” up and around the side to slow down or steal the ball. Additionally, teams in possession would only be allowed one forward rumble before having to “use” it.
Interesting. No one likes to tinker with laws for the sake of doing so, but there is certainly a need to review the permitted number of surrogates. Perhaps there could be six rather than eight, with the freedom to interchange them as needed. Not only would this provide ample cover, but also hopefully lead to more space later in games and encourage bigger forwards to lose wood in order to last the pace.
Because, make no mistake, the game can’t sit idly by, despite all the welcome advances that are being made in concussion management today. In the UK this week, for example, there is new scrutiny of compulsory contact rugby in secondary schools, while being in Australia means recognizing another significant long-term threat. The game was never the quintessential winter code, but its coverage and profile, for various reasons, has noticeably dropped.
Then, from a northern hemisphere perspective, there is the move from a June test window to a July test window. Let’s say that asking the international rugby union to face Wimbledon, Test cricket, the Golf Open and the Tour de France in July does not help its media visibility massively. Here is a big oval ball final this Saturday, but the nirvana of rugby remains far away.
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