The Breakdown | Why rugby union is stuck between a ruck and a hard place
Sometimes, when faced with a serious dilemma, it is worth rewinding back to the start. It can even help occasionally to open a dictionary and check, for example, a sport’s precise definition. So here’s a quiz question: which of the following appears beside the word “rugby” in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary? Is it a) a collision-based game, b) a physical contest or c) a contact sport? Take your time because this is important.
Because, interestingly, the aforementioned dictionary listing includes none of the three descriptions above. Instead it simply reads: “Game played with oval ball which may be kicked or carried.” Keep that in mind as you ponder what modern rugby union should be aiming to be and whether it is becoming too confusing by half for players, referees and fans alike.
Either way, in the vital pursuit of seeking to make the game “safer”, massive athletes are increasingly being asked to dance on the head of an impossibly small pin. To be a player, coach or match official is even to be unsure what constitutes “foul play”. The weekend saw some high-profile case studies which, in their different ways, cut to the heart of the tangled debate.
Take Guy Porter’s red card for Leicester in Clermont for a head-to-head collision with the massive Fritz Lee. Neither man had the ball and essentially bumped into each other. Foul play? It was more like watching two people in a crowded pub, both equally intent on not spilling their pints, who fail to spot each other and accidentally collide. Is that the fault of the disorientated visitor who has never previously visited the bar or the regular who didn’t double-check his regular route to the dart board was clear? Or neither of them?
By the letter of the law, though, there was head contact. For that reason the otherwise excellent Georgian referee Nika Amashukeli felt he had no option but to show Porter red. Head injuries have to be reduced somehow. Even senior officials within World Rugby, though, privately acknowledged on Monday the framework used to determine such incidents may need tweaking. Porter didn’t lower his body height because, with the ball disappearing out the back behind the dummy runner Lee, there wasn’t an obvious tackle to make.
Next up is the Exeter v Munster game and the yellow card shown to Olly Woodburn for catching a visiting head with a forearm as he sought to clear out a second-half ruck. According to Rob Baxter, Exeter’s director of rugby, it was nothing remotely unusual: “That’s a rugby clear-out that has happened probably 30 or 40 times in a game. I could go downstairs and clip out 20 rucks where someone’s arms when they have bound at a ruck have gone into a head.
“To the absolute letter of the law it’s maybe a penalty, maybe a yellow card, but if we are going to freeze frame every breakdown there is going to be an awful lot of yellow cards knocking about. I thought we had moved on from that, I thought we were looking for clear and definitive high contact to heads and faces with no mitigation and no dropping in height. This feels like it goes against all of that.”
Quite so. In which case how did Jamison Gibson-Park not see red for an upright shoulder to the head of his opposite number Kieran Marmion in Friday’s game between Connacht and Leinster? These things are magnified by the two-leg nature of the weekend’s European ties but inconsistent decision-making has major implications. Porter’s red card, as it turned out, did not cost Leicester victory but that was down to the 14 remaining Tigers playing out of their collective skins.
So what next? To be clear this is emphatically not one of those ridiculous “the game’s gone soft” articles which merely show an alarming ignorance about the commitment and dynamism of today’s players, never mind the vital importance of prioritising brain health. The tragic news from South Africa over the weekend, where the 18-year-old Liyabona Teyise died following a schools match, is just another reminder that rugby is a game with an inherent element of risk attached.
Other sports such as equestrianism can be dangerous, too, but that is not the point. Nor is a 20-minute red card the way forward. The game could push the offside line further back to neuter “blitz” defences. Or reduce substitutions to increase the prospect of more space later in games. What if teams were allowed only a certain maximum number of phases in the opposing 22, after which the ball is automatically turned over? No matter if that feels too close to rugby league. How else to reduce the number of head-down, bone-shuddering charges at human brick walls from two yards out?
Because the current truth is that rugby of both codes is stuck between a ruck and a hard place. No self-respecting administrator can blithely ignore the litigation hanging over the sport, the top-level injury toll, the premature retirements of talented athletes still in their 20s or parental reservations. But is there any other sport in which the definition of foul play is becoming less clear and obvious? Rugby does not have to be totally redefined but it does need to decide what kind of sport it wants to be.