Rugby Union: Rugby must blame the rucks, not the bucks

Jonathan Davies says a broken wrist has made him think about his future
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The Independent Online
I MANAGED to break another record on Wednesday night - I suffered my first broken bone in 25 years of playing organised rugby when my wrist was cracked while making a tackle in Cardiff's win against Swansea. At the time, I didn't realise it was bust and finished the game but now my arm is in plaster for a month and my immediate plans to indulge in a golfing orgy following the end of the season have been wrecked.

Perhaps it is nature's way of telling me to pack the game in - rugby, I mean, not golf - but I won't make that decision until next season comes into view. One thing is certain, my injury was a complete accident and not the result of the so-called brutality that professionalism is supposed to have brought to the game.

Our recent league match against Bridgend, which boiled over into several pitched battles, and some testy moments in the Leicester-Sale league meeting last weekend, are among incidents that some are using as proof that the pressure of vital end-of-season games is getting to players who are worried about their livelihoods.

This is nonsense. Games are no more intense today than they were when I first started and there was nothing at stake then, not even promotion and relegation. I said it when I went to rugby league and my experience is the same in professional union; money will make you train and prepare in a more positive way but it makes no difference to your will to win on the pitch.

What has changed is the number of these crucial matches which are now seen on television and whose dramas are highlighted by the press. This magnifies rugged play that would have gone unnoticed in the past.

The other important difference that professionalism has brought is the realisation that the game needs to present an attractive face to the paying public and if you examine the preparation of most top clubs it is geared to producing fast and open rugby. But that ambition is continually frustrated by players who kill the ball at rucks.

It is not only the flow of the game that is affected. If you examine the cause of most of the bad temper that flares up at matches, you will find that it starts when a player gets on the wrong side of the ball and the opposition try to get him out of the way by giving him a good shoeing. His team-mates rush to his defence and so strong is the bonding in a rugby team that a large punch-up ensues.

If only referees would act more quickly when a player kills a ruck, most of these flashpoints could be avoided. When I came back to union last season, this was the big new problem I noticed and I am afraid that referees have failed to solve it.

While the number of penalty tries awarded for persistent infringement by the defending team has shot up, there is no sign of a similar clampdown on rucking offences. What's the difference between illegally stopping attacks a yard from your line and stopping them 50 yards away?

Players and clubs have got to play their part in improving the game in this respect - one of the secrets of the Super 12 is the discipline that players show at rucks - but the referee is the man who really has the power to dictate an open, flowing game.

It would help if they were able to distinguish between rucking a player out of the way and stamping on him. No one can condone stamping but you shouldn't be punished for trying to persuade a player to get the hell out of it. A yellow card early on would discourage a regular offender, speed up the game and keep tempers in check.

A red or yellow card at an early stage of our game with Bridgend would have prevented what turned out to be a very, very dirty game. Four or five of our players went off for stitches in the first half alone. They had to send out for extra cat-gut. Still, I am not apportioning blame and the Bridgend crowd seemed to enjoy it.

If I had to pick a part of rugby that professionalism has affected it would be crowds. Their attitude has become more demanding and critical now that players are being paid. We were always used to one-eyed crowds, certainly in Wales. But there has been a noticeable increase in the amount of abuse being hurled. I read that Leicester players were upset at the amount of stick they got from some of the Sale crowd.

That is not a development any of us like to see and it is all the more reason for us to increase the entertainment rate and cut down on the frustration.

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