It has been obvious for a while that rugby union has a problem with its law book. Which is to say people cherrypick the bits they like, gloss over some of the less convenient parts, flag up certain things only to lose interest by next week, and cling pedantically to woolly wording which should have been redrafted years ago. Referees, coaches, players, the media and supporters have all been guilty, depending upon which day of the week it is.
The breadth of the problem has been underlined in the past 10 days. A rash of five red cards inside 24 hours in the Premiership has led to complaints, justified in several cases, of players being their own worst enemies. With player welfare and brain trauma front and centre of every agenda, how difficult is it to grasp that head-high tackles remain a very serious danger? How much longer until the penny drops?
Of course, players need to change their behaviour. But let’s add an immediate caveat: is it fair to blame the players alone? Surely it also has to be acknowledged that rugby’s margins for error are now akin to a wafer-thin mint? A huge amount certainly rests upon the precise angles captured by the TV director. An illegal tackle is not truly an illegal tackle until it has been identified, slowed down and pored over, frame by frame from multiple angles, like some mutant variant of cricket’s Snicko.
Fewer people, though, have stopped to consider the bigger picture. Is rugby a contact sport? Or a sport losing touch with its constituents? What if, for example, you are the ball carrier sprinting towards a would-be tackler who remains upright and declines to lower his head position. To try to brace yourself for the impact, you instinctively throw up an arm at the last second in the interests of self preservation, as you might do before a car crash. The odds nowadays are that you will be the one taking the early bath.
No wonder it has become an officiating minefield. The grimmest tackle of this Six Nations so far – the crocodile roll-induced knee wrecker that has probably ended Jack Willis’s season – is officially tolerated if it does not involve contact with the neck. Even “obvious” red cards are not necessarily that obvious. Neither of the offences committed by Zander Fagerson and Peter O’Mahony, respectively sent off for Scotland and Ireland against Wales in this season’s Six Nations championship, was immediately called by the referee. It just shows how much else they are having to keep an eye on.
With so many big beasts colliding at pace, there are bound to be some clumsy misjudgments but simply bumbling along hoping for the best is to risk falling behind the curve. No less an expert than Nigel Owens, while not excusing acts of crass idiocy, now believes the entire game must agree, as a matter of urgency, on which parts of the existing law book should be universally heeded.
At the moment, Owens told BT Sport, significant chunks are simply being ignored, not least entering rucks with your head above hip height and being bound on to a teammate. “It’s also quite clear in law that you can’t wilfully collapse a ruck (via a crocodile roll) but it’s never been refereed or coached like that. We must all collectively decide: are we going to referee the laws in the law book and change the way the game is played and, hopefully, player behaviour or do we need to now change the laws? Whether it’s the dynamics of the modern game that make it very difficult for the players to adapt I don’t know but something needs to change.”
Owens, not for the first time, is spot on. No one wants endless law-book tinkering but for how long can smashing isolated “jacklers” and repeated head-down bashing from three metres out remain sustainable? And whatever happened to referees – even the best ones – being seen but only seldom heard? Nowadays the officials are on screen more often than Matt Hancock, trying to be judge, jury, coach and mother hen – “Now, please, nine” – all at once. Rugby’s most dramatic moments should be happening when the ball is in play, not when it is dead.
And while we are at it can we properly deal with the low-hanging lawbook fruit that leaves the game open to constant ridicule – feeding the second-row at scrums, the painful caterpillar rucks, etc – and reconsider anachronisms such as charging down goal-kickers, particularly when the latter have just been told by the referee to take as long as they like with the clock in the red. No criticism of Northampton, who deserved to beat Exeter on Saturday, but the law is an ass when hair-splitting arguments over whether a kicker adjusting his stance is “starting their approach” overshadow the main event. Rugby is developing an image problem and it is not all the players’ fault.
World Cup marathon
How long is too long when it comes to retaining the public’s attention? We are about to find out, following the decision this week to extend the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France by a week, ostensibly on player welfare grounds. The tournament will now span eight weekends rather than seven, from 8 Sept to 28 October, with every country now having at least five days’ preparation for all games for the first time, and squad sizes rising from 31 to 33. Too much of a good thing? Or a chance for players to enjoy the occasional long lunch? They’ll all need one by week eight.
One to watch
A final decision on whether France’s home game against Scotland this Sunday goes ahead will be made on Wednesday after another round of Covid testing. Hopefully Les Bleus will be able to field a team that upholds the integrity of the entire tournament; if not, and the fixture has to be postponed, what chance of it being rescheduled for the following fallow weekend without another massive row with the clubs over player access? Six Nations officials can hardly say they were not warned; delaying the tournament for a few weeks appeared the most sensible option in January but was ignored. French fingers are not alone in being tightly crossed this week.