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.