Comment: Why the game must be wired

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A BEMUSED silence gathered over Murrayfield (from the Scottish supporters, at least) last Saturday as Jonathan Callard's last-minute penalty secured an English victory. It was one of the most dramatic finishes in the illustrious history of the Five Nations' Championship - and yet few spectators could explain exactly what had happened.

There were no heated arguments among those leaving the ground. (Imagine the uproar if Scotland's football team had been beaten by a last-minute penalty at Hampden Park.) Neither did the bars of Edinburgh resound to animated discussion on the whys and wherefores of Mr McLachlan's decision. Such controversy is the life-blood of spectator sport, yet those who had paid to be at Murrayfield were left in the dark.

This raises an important issue for rugby union. There has always been a subterranean aspect to exchanges between the forwards, but the imposition of new rules at the rucks, mauls and line-outs and the consequent preponderance of penalties has meant that the reasons for many of the critical decisions in a match are not discernible to the naked eye.

So is rugby union no longer a spectator sport? There is no doubt that, for many who go to international matches, the 'crack' in the car park is as important as the action on the field, and there is kudos in having the hottest ticket in town.

But all too often a Five Nations match fails to live up to its billing, and those who have paid through the turnstiles are especially short-changed. New layers of arcane rules have only exacerbated the situation, to the point that watching on television becomes the only means to understand what's going on.

While there is no problem in selling tickets for the game, the unions are understandably a little blase about the difficulties of spectators. But that does not preclude more effort on their behalf. For instance, why not wire the referees for sound? American football is not exactly easy to follow, but in the NFL every decision is relayed by the match official to the crowd. This is a sport almost designed for television, and yet the needs of paying fans are taken into account. Rugby referees were wired to the television commentators during the World Cup, so there is no technical reason why we cannot make a further leap.

And if this is too radical a step for an innately conservative game, there is a clear case for making referees' signals more intelligible, and providing a guide to these signals in the match programme.

Rugby union has done much to modernise itself, but it now needs to be more user-friendly. A major appeal of the Five Nations' Championship is the atmosphere created by the crowds. This excitement transmits itself to those watching in their living rooms. A game that distances itself from those who make the effort to attend is on a dangerous course.