A bead of sweat rolled anxiously down his face, lingering as it slipped off the side of his cheek. He maintained an intense, smouldering eye contact as he slowly got himself into position. Temperatures were rising. His heartbeat increased rapidly as he sunk into position, prepared to thrust himself forward. He bit his lip, unable to wait, before a shrill blast brought him back to his senses.
“Another reset”, whispered the referee.
The facets and flaws of rugby union have dominated headlines over the last few weeks, with many dissatisfied in the direction that the game is going. Compounded by a somewhat underwhelming beginning to the RBS Six Nations, pundits, and fans alike have lamented the manner in which results driven “safe” rugby has taken precedence over the exciting, free flowing flair of rugby gone by.
“It’s not as exciting to watch anymore”, is the general consensus. There’s no longer an exciting buzz around the pitch, with teams afraid to take risks and chances, instead, playing it safe and looking to grind out a win. It’s conservative, but it’s effective.
The realities of the game and the written laws are still striving to find a balance between one another. When a sport turns professional – and rugby has done so relatively recently – it takes a while for the rules to catch up with that. Indeed the gap has widened, and the laws as they currently stand, do not favour the most attractive style of rugby.
Teams are so well drilled, so well marshalled, so well developed, that it becomes a slow game of chess, as opponents slowly beat one another into submission. It’s a tactical masterclass, where clever minds like Joe Schmidt’s reign supreme. It’s not always entertaining but it does get results, and what the IRB need to do – is to redevelop the trade-off between “attractive rugby” and “winning rugby”.
Disappointingly enough, the game can’t be fixed by any amount of “x ways to fix rugby” bullet point articles. No matter how concise and nicely you lay out the little headings, changing the game “for the better” is not that simple – especially with the Rugby World Cup around the corner.
Getting rid of the scrum, banning the choke tackle, getting rid of flankers, changing penalty kicks off a scrum to a 2 point score, adding a weight limit to starting teams – there’s been a number of theories doing the rounds on how to “fix” the game of rugby. Some have their merits, and some have their madness. Some are worth looking into, and some of them should never be mentioned again.
But before we get too creative, there’s one issue that can be addressed now and needs to be addressed in some respect – the consistency of the referee.
I’ve always been a fan of saying there are no laws to rugby, only rough guidelines. Play the referee and then you find out how rough or straight these guidelines are. But that area is becoming too grey, and it’s becoming more difficult for teams to play in.
I’d know a relative amount about scrums – by no means an expert, but I’d have an idea – and 80% of the time a scrum crashes to the floor I look at what way the referee throws up his arm, clueless to what way it’s going to go. If Roman Poite is the referee even he doesn’t know what way his arm is going until he realises he has to throw it somewhere.
How often is a scrum half pulled up for a crooked feed into a scrum? It happens in at least half the scrums that take place in a game. What constitutes a high tackle anymore?
The high ball has been in the limelight ever since Jared Payne’s controversial red card against Saracens, and that limelight has only intensified. Look no further than Finn Russell’s two week ban– the first man in the air is at an immediate advantage, with the referee already on his side. There’s protecting the player and then there’s the other extreme, which makes it so hard to challenge in the air and play ball.
Whatever about the rules hindering attractive rugby, it’s more about creating rules that award risk taking or exciting rugby. It’s not dead from the game – see the southern hemisphere style, or how the Irish U20s have been playing for rough example – there just needs to be a shift in the emphasis.
If you look to change the rules of rugby, you have to start at the administrator of the rules. You can change as much as you want about the scrum, about the concussion protocol, about the breakdown, but if the referees aren’t going to consistently enforce the same rules then you’ve got your problems. Players get frustrated and confused, spectators don’t understand what’s going on, and poor calls and controversies hang over the sport like a dark cloud.
Rugby is a complex sport. It always has been and it always will be, and that’s part of why we love the game. But, some sort of common ground has to be found between referees. Whether it’s a specific specialist referee for a scrum say, or a monthly refereeing review, the IRB’s focus should be on the coalface of the game.
You can change as many rules as you want, but the IRB have to remember – the referees are going to enforce them. Any changes to the game should have that thought process at the core.
It’s never going to be black and white, it’s too complex and too fast paced for it to be so simple. But the referees need to see things as close to black and white as they can, and they all need to see the same things and call the same things.
That’s what we need to be addressing now, not calling for any lucrative rule changes. Because at the moment it isn’t black and white for anyone, and there’s a lot more than 50 shades of grey.