Rugby Union: Ruck in danger of receiving the boot

Maintaining the good image of the game ahead of October's World Cup is provoking referees to blow the whistle on footwork.
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ASK 100 aficianados for a list of the "men most likely to" in this autumn's World Cup and the usual suspects will be present and correct on the identification parade: Joost van der Westhuizen and John Eales, Thomas Castaignede and Martin Johnson, Christian Cullen and Jonah Whatsisname, with a few Samoan crash-tacklers thrown in for good measure. (The Pacific islanders may not get within arm's length of the Webb Ellis Trophy but, by jingo, they'll take a few big cheeses with them on their way out of the tournament).

There is, however, a very real prospect that the biggest extravaganza in the history of the sport will be dominated, perhaps asphyxiated, by an altogether less glamourous but vastly more influential band of movers and shakers - the Ed Morrisons, Paddy O'Briens, David McHughs, Peter Marshalls and Jim Flemings of the union parish. And before anyone starts getting their retaliation in first by striking up a spring chorus of "The referee's a @pounds &**?!", it will not be their fault if this October's whistle count works out at 30 penalties a match. Blame the obsession with image and profile instead.

When Leo Williams, the bullish Brisbane lawyer who chairs the board of Rugby World Cup Ltd, went public on the issue last Tuesday by expressing his fears of a "festival of whistle-blowing rather than a festival of rugby" and declaring open season on "over-zealous refereeing", he touched a very raw nerve.

"Leo is shooting from the hip without knowing how to handle his gun," said one World Cup official angrily. "Just at the moment, we can do without this sort of disruption. For the first time in God knows how long, all the referees are singing from the same hymn sheet. People should leave well alone."

Williams' comments also prompted Clive Norling, one of the finest Test referees of them all, to mount his soapbox. "I have absolutely no fears about the forthcoming World Cup," pronounced the Welsh Rugby Union referees' director. "The feeling is that referees worldwide are now much closer together.

"This time last year I was extremely concerned about the tournament because northern and southern hemisphere officials had different approaches. But there is now more adherence to the International Board Charter than at any time in the past."

In many ways, Norling made perfect sense: much to European relief - not to mention Williams' disgust - there will be no Super 12-style World Cup. The laws will be strictly applied, the even-handed approach enshrined in the IB Charter will be followed, defending sides will be able to compete for the ball rather than be made to wait for the attacking team to drop it and, mercifully, there will be no basketball scorelines - at least, not in the truly competitive matches. Indeed, southern hemisphere officials have recently revolutionised the Super 12 tournament by refereeing to the rulebook, rather than the television script. No wonder Williams feels this season's competition has been a "pitiful spectacle". He no longer gets his cheap thrill of a try every three minutes.

However, Williams was right to sound a note of discord, even if he did it for all the wrong reasons. While no one in authority is willing to say as much, the ruck - the single most dynamic mechanism in the attacking armoury and the phase that provides union with a continuity unique among handling games - will effectively be outlawed during this year's showpiece event because the administrators fear the negative impact of "boots on bodies" on the TV audience. They do not want a rucking incident to scar their precious "product" in the way such incidents notoriously scarred the faces of JPR Williams, Jean-Francois Tordo and Phil de Glanville in the distant but unforgotten past.

In fact, many leading referees are already operating a ruck-free system. David McHugh, the top-rated Irish official, is a case in point: given charge of last month's Calcutta Cup match, he blew instantly at the tackle rather than contemplate anything resembling a boots-and-all drive for the loose ball. During the Northampton-Leicester game three weeks later, he sin-binned Johnson for placing a what was nothing more than a warning boot on the ample buttock of Richard Metcalfe, who had deliberately killed prime Tigers' possession a couple of metres from his own line. On both occasions, rugby itself was sold short.

"Rugby people know full well that Johnno was hard done by," said one experienced referee this week. "But you have to remember that rugby people are no longer masters of their own sport. Television is the master. The ruck is a real dilemma for the game, perhaps the biggest one we face in terms of law-making and law application. Privately, many referees would agree with the view that, within reason, a player lingering around on the wrong side of the breakdown deserves whatever he gets. Say that publicly, though, and we'd be hung. With TV coverage the way it is, people go berserk every time a boot goes near a body."

And there lies the rub. If packs can no longer ruck ball-killers out of the road in time-honoured fashion - as the All Blacks used to put it, "If you're on the ground, you're part of the ground" - the only sanction rests with the referee and his whistle, hence the kind of penalty tidal wave that forced England to win last weekend's game against France through Jonny Wilkinson's left boot instead of a glistening hat-trick from Jeremy Guscott or Dan Luger. Nowadays, it is a clear case of: "If you're on the ground, stay there. You'll get away with three points rather than seven and you won't even cop a stud mark."

Without the ruck, union is in danger of mutating into rugby league with line-outs; increasingly, the big boys will simply carry the ball up the middle, take the tackle and wait for the whistle that allows them to retain possession at the ensuing scrum. It is a bleak prospect: a game of pace and dynamism and technique sacrificed on the altar of the "U" certificate.

No-one wants to see another JPR or another De Glanville, but the Morrisons and O'Briens of this world are sufficiently accomplished to distinguish between legitimate rucking and outright head-hunting.

"Let the players get on with it," said Williams during this week's outburst. Yes. And let the officials get on with it, too. Contrary to popular belief, not all of them want to whistle the living daylights out of every game.