Is rugby becoming too confusing for its own good?

Rugby, done right, is a simple game, but a chaotic occupation.

What do I mean by that cryptic opening?

Consider Stuart Hogg’s excellent try in Dublin. Clean catch, arcing infield run towards support. Scanning of the defensive chase; identification of two beefy front-rows. Fine execution of a neat dummy; pace to beat the cover.

Simple play, performed well.

Then think of that maddening spree of first-half penalties conceded by Scotland. Several, particularly the first against John Barclay, were highly contentious.

Now, the conceptual simplicity of the law book, or of sports like football and basketball, goes flying out the window when 200kg-plus collides head-on at furious speed.

The physical hardships of the modern game demand an extensive policing to keep players safe, and cater to a plethora of possible outcomes. But there is a legitimate concern the professional game has evolved to become too confusing for its own good. It’s harming itself with complexity.

Take the breakdown conundrum illustrated by Pascal Gauzere’s early whistling in Dublin.

Rugby did away with the old-school rucking of yesteryear cherished by the likes of Jim Telfer, chiefly to avoid prone players being trampled. What it has unintentionally created is a scenario where not only could, conservatively (remember, players are required to bind to a team-mate or opponent when entering a ruck, and have their heads and shoulders no lower than their hips), a penalty be awarded at almost every ruck, but it is now very difficult for an arriving player to safely, legally and effectively unseat an opponent “jackaling” for a turnover.

We see low-flying clear-outs where the unprotected head or neck of a player frequently bears much of the impact. Rolling the jackaling player aside, or forcing him directly downwards onto his stomach is the latest de rigueur, but has been lambasted – and I tend to agree – by Fiji Sevens head coach Ben Ryan for its potential to cause injury. This technique has also inadvertently given rise to the infamous neck roll, where a player is swung aside by his neck, not his midriff.

The breakdown is a deeply pivotal contest to most matches at most levels. And while the weather during much of the northern hemisphere season is not conducive to a “clean” contact area, it should remain a duel of speed, strength, technique and guile.

But it is becoming so dreadfully, tediously subjective in its officiating, and perilous in its practice, that it breeds as much frustration and danger as it does entertainment.

There is, of course, great skill and satisfaction in eking out those fine margins we hear mentioned so often. In painstakingly scrutinising opponents and officials, sniffing out an edge and exploiting it successfully. But should “adapting to referees” really be so prevalent? There is, after all, only one law book.

Most of us happily partake in spirited debate around refereeing decisions and their consistency – or lack thereof. At what point, though, does healthy debate become tiresome for even the most ardent fanatic?

For the habitual supporter, the casual viewer, or the potential new follower, the whole procedure must be baffling.

You worry too about the glorification of the “hit”, the thirst for jarring, upright, car-crash meetings of muscle, over the traditional tackle. Or the ankle-high “chop” that is so often performed minus any discernible involvement of the tackler’s arms.

You can question the maul, which is now such a potent attacking weapon in part because referees tend to ignore the paucity of binding, and the tendency for ball carriers to detach from team-mates and nestle in a more favourable position.

You can point to the scrummage, where very few observers have more than a cursory understanding of why a set-piece swivels or crumbles, and whom, if indeed anyone, is to blame. Yet every week, precious minutes of playing time are devoured by collapses, resets, and stern ticking-offs.

And after a period of intense adjudication lasting barely six months, two seasons ago, scrum put-ins have reverted to their hilariously crooked norm.

There are international eligibility laws that allow capriciousness and cynicism to bleed into the Test game. And risible disparities in judicial and disciplinary processes that lead to cries of anger, injustice and disillusionment that are not without merit.

You can analyse all these things and still argue that the quirks and chicanes, in what is a highly nuanced sport, bearing an obvious and inherent physical risk, contribute to rugby’s unique brilliance. It is now, though, verging on tying itself in all sorts of troublesome knots.

Rugby remains in its infancy as a professional entity. Its lawmakers responded well to the much-pilloried open letter that called for the banning of tackling in the schools game.

But it does not have time on its side to grapple with these issues – we don’t yet have the data to suggest what long-term damage might be done to today’s elite players.

The sport then needs to confront some home truths, evaluate its image to supporters, would-be supporters and parents, and adapt constructively to avoid entrapping itself in a dangerous web of confusion.

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8 comments on “Is rugby becoming too confusing for its own good?

  1. Bruce Arnot on

    Great article Jamie, the simple facts are that only if the jackal has his hands on the ball is there presence legal. if this was how refs managed it then the breakdown area would be much clearer. In addition the need for all tackles to be beneath the shoulder with two arms, with clear sanctions of 10 minutes in the bin if not, will again clear up the breakdown. Cleaner breakdowns quicker ball, more running, cardiovascular fitter players will reduce size and collisions will become more manageable, I think. Also can we please stop a player standing out with the field of play stopping kicks from landing in play.

  2. Smsmith70 on

    There is no such thing as the “jackal” in the laws and concepts like “surviving the clear out” or not are just nonsense. The tackler may do what he likes as long as he has released the tackled player and regained his feet immediately. At that point it is up to the team in possession to clear him out of the way By means of a ruck. If the tackler gains possession of the ball before that then no ruck can form. If a ruck forms first then no player may play the ball with their hands

    Simple really!

    Ps First penalty against Barclay was nonsense, he did everything right.

  3. Referendum on

    That’s what I thought. Really poor and Ser the tone for the next 30 mins. Barclay would be thinking why?

  4. Deflated on

    My gut instinct is to say the game is not over complicated, however I constantly find myself wondering why referees make certain decisions. A particular passage of play could be interpreted several different ways depending on who is holding the whistle. In reality, it’s part of the entertainment and I could be tempted to say it gives us a reason to blame losses on refs as opposed to the inadequacies of our team(s).
    Just to add to the list of areas to be looked at. I have often wondered why a no arms tackle is deemed a penalty offence ( presumably because by running hard into someone with the point of your shoulder can cause damage), but when you are the ball carrier it is perfectly OK for you to charge into someone……..with the point of your shoulder leading. Surely the impact in both cases is the same?

    • Robbie on

      The focus of the person with the ball is the ball, the focus of the person making a tackle is the tackle. As such the onus has to be on the tackler to go low and use the proper technique – it wouldn’t make sense for the ball carrier to make themselves more easy to tackle. The problem is that the defenders are all now looking for the big hit in order to prevent the opposition getting over the gain-line and so continually go too high which results in the big collisions of shoulder and chest.

      Add to this sometimes as the ball carrier you’re not even aware of an incoming tackle, for instance when passing the ball.

      • Deflated on

        Robbie. I ‘get’ what you are saying but would counter some of your points (and it’s minor). I agree that the ball carrier is normally primarily focuses on the ball, and that they are sometimes not aware when a tackle is coming. However on hose occasions when the ball carrier is ‘bashing up’ either to make contact before providing quick ball or as a crash runner, they almost always have their eye on their target (the likely tackler) advance their shoulder forward and accelerate into the contact, sometimes with an upward thrust. That action is just as violent as a no arms tackle. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting it needs to be ‘toned down’, I am not on the side of those who constantly wish to change the nature of the game, in fact when I played (badly) the fair, but hard, contact was one of the areas of the game I relished. I don’t even know what the answer to my own question is, but I just feel it is one of the areas of the game which potentially adds to the confusion being discussed on the thread.

  5. Bulldog on

    I think in some ways professional rugby is less fun for the forwards and though we say safety is the reason for the changes in the scrumlaws, we really mean getting restarted sooner and making it more spectator friendly.

    So on one front I am sorry to see the players missing out on the fun, however I also recognise the expanded game and the increased ball carrying which brings another pleasure. There is nothing better than seeing all 15 involved in a game .

    When I discuss this with our current elite players , they tell me that they would relish getting away with the tactics that were outlawed in the scrum.

    To be honest , few players in a team knew what was going on the the scrum/pack before the changes , so what chance has the spectator , so I understand that and we are not going back, not my point .

    Well whatever the idea was , what we now have is slower than allowing the forwards to sort out the scrum themselves. So it needs to change and this is where I am concerned, what will we snatch in the name of progress.

    My biggest concern for Rugby Union is that it becomes Rugby League in all but name. Early converts from RL were very successfull and we continue to accelerate converts from league today.

    So my question and concern is , at what time , will we fail to recognise the past or even the present , in the future of Union?

    All of the safety concerns , the scrum inconsistency , referees who could not draw the shape of a second rows bum in a bag of flour deciding how to pack down does not feel sustainable. One day we will look back at this and wonder what on earth we were doing.

    I just hope I never see it however it all seems to be going one way. I can see us going for Rugby League style, 6 man scrums and every forward a back row. Last time I looked , todays mini rugby squads are all shapes and sizes, where will that leave us !

    • Deflated on

      An interesting and concerning contribution. I really hope your conclusion does not come to fruition, it would take away what is, in my opinion, the best team sport in existence. Again I don’t know if I could suggest a solution, maybe it could be possible to set up forums/meetings involving referees and players to try and get referees to understand players perspectives and vice-versa? Of course there would need to be honesty sessions where players (front rows especially) can educate referees on what dirty tricks are going on to try and get the upper edge. By coincidence, I recently happened to be watching a DVD (best British Lions matches, or something) and the scrums from before the 80s were a million miles away from what we see now. Scrum awarded, 16 blokes quickly form a sort of huddle, the SH. Throws the ball in, the hookers have a hooking contest (yes really, both hookers swinging legs) and there’s a little bit of pushing, no more than a second or two and out pops the ball on one side or another. Certainly not as technical or organised as today’s scrums but a helluva lot quicker and with few resets. It is a similar case for line outs. Would it really be too difficult to go back to a similar format?

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