Comment: The code breakers

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The Independent Online
FOR rugby fans, the next few weeks are full of promise. With more than 50 of New Zealand's best union and league players at present in Britain, aficionados of both codes can look forward to a fascinating series of Test matches. They can also look forward to an intriguing opportunity to compare, at the highest level, the two codes. Leaving aside the question of whether the Kiwis or the All Blacks are the better players, many observers will be struck by how similar the two games have become.

Increasingly, both consist primarily of relatively open, broken play, with players spread across the pitch, queuing up to run at one another or to tackle one another. Both can make compulsive viewing. They are not particularly different.

It was not always thus; but rugby union has changed. The new experimental laws have made the game more like rugby league. The most noticeable trends in international rugby union since March 1992 have been: less emphasis on set-piece play; less chaotic wrestling for the ball in static rucks and mauls; less difference between forwards and backs; more use of the tackle as an offensive weapon; more time with the ball in play. All these, we are told, are changes for the better, producing a more 'flowing game'. But are they?

One can debate the merits of these laws ad infinitum. Conservatives point to a reduced try rate as evidence that the laws do not work, progressives to improved attendance figures as evidence that they do.

It is largely a matter of taste. Two things, though, need saying. The first is that rugby union's new laws have been foisted upon the game with a mixture of highhandedness and underhandedness reminiscent of the passing of the Single European Act. First there was no need to worry about them because they were only experimental; now it is futile and backward-looking to oppose them because everyone is used to them. Experiment has become fait accompli.

That is one cause for concern. The other is that the new laws reduce choice. Instead of having two quite different codes, we have two rather similar ones. Perhaps most fans do prefer the league style of play; if so, they are free to watch league. The sporting nation loses nothing if there is a general drift from union to league, and gains nothing if union, for fear of losing its following, imitates its increasingly popular cousin. (If you are a rugby union administrator, of course, it is a different matter.)

There is a large body of conservative opinion in rugby union which fears that the traditions of the game are being legislated away by its custodians. If the International Board, who will decide the game's future next spring, do not take serious note of these fears, they will be failing in their duty.

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