Rugby Union: New rules threaten to kill the game

The sidelines are crowded, not with fans but with reserves and those sent to the sin-bin.
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The Independent Online
WE HAVE the music, the dancing girls and the big screen replays. We have the headgear, the body armour and the sponsored bottles of isotonic energiser. We have miked-up referees, wired-up touch judges and video officials perched high in the stand with their slow-motion monitors. And now we have the sidelines packed with entire platoons of replacements capable of filling any position from one to 15 twice over. All rugby needs now is the legalisation of the forward pass and, hey presto, it's gridiron. Need an outside-half? Phone Joe Montana and tell him he can wear his crash helmet.

Come to think of it, Smokin' Joe could start playing tomorrow; the referees are so busy orchestrating a dozen or more substitutions, half-a-dozen blood breaks and umpteen sin-binnings that San Francisco's finest could chuck a big 60-yarder straight down the pitch without anyone with a whistle taking a blind bit of notice. If an hour's American Football takes three hours to complete, 80 minutes of union will soon occupy the best part of a week.

Rugby is in a mess, on the field as well as in the boardroom. While football, the simplest and most accessible team sport yet devised by man, goes from strength to mighty strength, the stuffed suits of the union legislature are in serious danger of rendering the 15-man code unwatchable. There were sights and sounds at Kingsholm, that wonderfully earthy rugby theatre, and Vicarage Road, that vibrant new venue, last weekend that made a mockery of the sport's pretensions to mass appeal.

The second half of the Gloucester v West Hartlepool game was so grotesquely punctuated by comings and goings - two pointless sin-binnings followed by 14 substitutions - that it might just as well have been played at Clapham Junction. The 6,000 crowd - and there is no more motivated rugby audience than those clad in cherry and white - booed and hissed and whistled in a perfectly understandable outpouring of bored frustration. By all accounts, the Saracens-Sale match at Watford was worse still, its passion well and truly killed by human traffic.

Bald statistics do not always tell the tale, as any cricketer will confirm, but this collection of figures might well strike a dissonant chord with those who fear their game is mutating into something unloveable. There have been 28 sin-binnings and an astonishing 132 substitutions in the 18 Premiership One games played thus far.

Last weekend, replacements played 1,140 minutes worth of rugby in six games - an increase of some 30 per cent on the previous round of matches. Sale, the most enthusiastic subscribers to player rotation theory, have made 16 substitutions in three outings, while West Hartlepool have managed 11 in two. Fifteen against 15? A test of strength and stamina over 80 unforgiving minutes? What a farce.

If the lawmakers of the Rugby Football Union had eyes to see, they would scrap the sin-bin at the first opportunity - that is to say, at their review session at the end of October - and abandon the premise of tactical substitutions. Sadly, they will do neither. Both the bin and the bench have become central components of the game in the southern hemisphere and, as we keep on hearing, what is good for the Boks and the Blacks is automatically good for us backward Europeans.

Nick Bunting, the RFU's referee development officer, openly admits that the sin-bin as currently administered has all the ingredients of a dog's breakfast, but defends the experiment down to the last lick of the bowl. "I would admit that while we're seeing a pattern emerge, it isn't quite the pattern we anticipated," Bunting says. "The bin was brought in to cut out technical or so-called professional transgressions that interrupt the flow of the game, but referees are white-carding players for foul play instead. However, I don't detect a groundswell of opinion against the idea - most directors of rugby want it kept - and I suspect it will stay in place until a decision is made at the end of the season."

Bunting is rather more concerned with the substitution obsession: "I think the seven replacement agreement is over the top and throws up all sorts of negative consequences for the game," he agreed. "Second and third teams are being scrapped because clubs are taking virtually all their front- row forwards on first XV duty. People spend weeks and months at a time just warming the bench. It's a serious issue for rugby at every level."

A new breed of player is emerging from this fog of confusion: the fully paid part-timer. Willie Ofahengaue, the Wallaby flanker, and Peter Walton, Newcastle's international loose forward, are two examples. Euphemistically labelled "impact players" by their coaches, they are in reality 40-minute performers at best. No longer fast or fit enough to last a full game - both have suffered their fair share on the injury front - they are habitually held back until the pace has dropped and then told to give what little they have left in the tank in the closing stages. Tactically cute, yes. Admirable, hardly.

Few now seriously question the legitimacy of genuine injury substitutions; somehow, the Olympian bravery of Colin Meads taking it to the Springboks with his shattered forearm encased in a leather sheath, or Robin Cowling scrummaging against the French with a broken collarbone, is too red raw for the sanitised world of professional entertainment. But it is not too much, surely, to ask 30 pampered rugger-buggers to play from 3pm to 4.20. After all, they have nothing else to do.