Guile victim of the gory game

In the land of the big hitters, is rugby union becoming too bloody dangerous?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

If they gave points for stitches, the doctors would have been on a bigger bonus than the players in the England-South Africa match at Twickenham last weekend. Not surprisingly, people are getting alarmed at the increase in the physical nature of top rugby.

If they gave points for stitches, the doctors would have been on a bigger bonus than the players in the England-South Africa match at Twickenham last weekend. Not surprisingly, people are getting alarmed at the increase in the physical nature of top rugby.

But when you weigh up how much bigger and faster the players are these days, it was inevitable that brute strength would play a bigger part in what, after all, is a contact game. Indeed, the wonder is that there aren't more serious injuries when you see the big hits going in.

Of course, the bigger and more powerful you are the better you are equipped to withstand the impacts, but what worries me is that this escalation of the rough stuff is having an effect on the game's appeal. I'm more worried about the damage being done to rugby than to the players. When you see teams resorting to bashing into each other as a method of playing, you fear for the future of guile in the game.

In my day, the idea was to get past opponents; the modern way is to run into them as hard as you can to set up another phase. That policy is leading to boring rugby for the spectators, and is setting the youngsters completely the wrong example.

My 12-year-old son, Scott, plays the game every week, and even at that level it has become very combative. I want to see him and his team-mates devel-oping the art of stepping past players and using the pass to beat opponents. But they, too, tend to be looking for the hits rather than the gaps.

You do get worried as a parent at the way the game is developing. I read last week that some white parents in New Zealand of all places are discouraging their sons from playing rugby because of the ferocity with which the Maoris and Polynesians play. They have never played any differently in the South Sea islands - I can still feel the bruises - and the harder and more physical the game becomes the more it suits them.

There is no doubt that on average they are bigger and much more sturdily built than those of European origin, and there's not a lot of future in trying to match them for toughness. Just think of Jonah Lomu and Va'aiga Tuigamala.

But rugby has always been a game for all shapes and sizes; the smaller you were the more guile and cunning you needed to counter the power of the big men. When the game chooses to go down the power-only road you risk losing the magic that makes rugby so great.

In Australia and New Zea-land they are trying to allay the fears of those who don't want their sons mangled at an early age by having weight divisions in boys' rugby. Teams are graded according to size, so smaller players at least get a chance to develop their skills before they are thrown to the giants.

It's a very good idea, but I wonder if it is the best way to acquire the sharpness of thought and action a smaller player needs. As one of the smallest players of my generation, I can vouch for how difficult it is to make any impact on the game unless you get smart and streetwise very quickly. Guile becomes as much a necessity as a luxury.

Whether I would have managed as well now that power and strength are the dominant factors is difficult to say. Perhaps I wouldn't want to, because it is not quite the game of rugby I knew and loved. You don't need many talented youngsters coming to the same conclusion before the game is in serious trouble.

At least it is not as dirty as it was. There are too many prying cameras around for the old-time villains to flourish. It may be tough these days, but I wouldn't be as scared to go on the floor as I used to be. Real nastiness used to go on, and you had to hand out your own justice in order to dissuade them.

There are ways the game can rid itself of this obsession with the he-man stuff. Much of the tackling and defensive efficiency in union has come from rugby league, but that influence has yet to be followed by the skill and pace with which league attackers play. When the union backs pick up on those skills, they will find it immensely preferable to trying to bash their way through.

New laws could help. When I was playing league in Australia in 1991, they brought in a rule that the player who threw the first punch was the one who went off, not the retaliator. So if someone smacked you one, you could smash him back to your heart's content and he'd still be the one to go.

You'd be amazed how well it worked. You thought twice about punching if it could bring you a good hiding as well as a red card.

Another solution is a more obvious one. The only sure way to create space on a rugby pitch for the runners and the sidesteppers is to reduce the teams to 14 men. It may be worth thinking about.

Comments