Vandal at the city gates

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The Independent Online
It has been an odd season, partly because people have been looking forward to the World Cup. It has been odd also because rugby followers are speculating about what happens after that. If the unions of the southern hemisphere - at any rate of Australasia - become openly professional, where does that leave the unions of the northern hemisphere? Where indeed!

This development might have occurred without the intervention of Rupert Murdoch in rugby league. But there is little doubt that he helped it on its way. Suppose Murdoch extends his new-found interest in what used to be called the handling code still further. What then?

I am told that Sky Sports already broadcasts a Courage First Division match every Saturday, with commentaries or summaries by Stuart Barnes and Jamie Salmon. For myself, I continue to trudge doggedly to Sudbury or The Stoop, or to take the train to Bath. But it can only be a matter of time before I acquire one of those dishes simply as a professional necessity.

Murdoch has already established something more secure than a toe-hold in rugby union. He could yet want to make his grip tighter still. He could offer large sums to the unions, to the clubs or to both.

This would not necessarily bring out-and-out professionalism to the game, or not at first. The money could easily be absorbed through spending on safer and more comfortable grounds. As a price, he (or one of his minions) would demand some changes in the rules, as Murdoch would undoubtedly call them, as distinct from "the laws", which is the usage favoured by Dudley Wood and other senior figures in the Rugby Football Union.

Wood is off to retirement. Though I have not always agreed with him - in fact I have usually disagreed - I wish him prosperity, health and happiness. He was unfailingly courteous and always prepared to help if he could.

I am fairly sure he would have sent Murdoch away with some brisk though polite words if he had suggested any modifications in the laws. About his successors I am not so certain.

"No one," Murdoch or minion might say, "can tell you for certain why this damn game comes to a stop. It's always coming to a stop, and no one can tell you why. Sure, I know the ref's supposed to give a sign. But how many punters understand sign language?

"Even the guys on the box don't understand it. 'Over the top,' says Nigel. 'Handling in the ruck I think, Nigel,' says Bill. 'Dangerous use of the boot,' says some third guy who's supposed to be coming in at half-time but can't keep quiet.

"And that line-out of yours. I tell you, it's a mess. A couple of guys who are only in the side because they're seven feet tall stand a few yards from another couple of guys like giraffes and then some stocky little character dummies to throw the ball over their heads. Then they start doing one another violence and the little guy throws the ball at them for real and then they all do one another more violence. And one side or the other gets hold of the ball by accident.

"Now don't get me wrong. I don't mind a scrap. The public likes a fight. But your way of going on is crazy, no other word for it.

"And there's something else that puzzles me. When the guy dummies to put the ball into the line-out he's allowed to get away with it, or mostly he is, but when another guy dummies to put the ball into the scrum he gets a penalty against him. Or is it a free- kick? That's another thing you'll have to sort out before we clinch this deal.

"So why don't you have one of your nice little scrums where the ball goes into touch, 10 yards infield. Pull the plug on the line-out. Junk it. Bin it. Tell those beanpoles to get themselves work at the freak show. You don't need eight guys, either, in that scrum of yours. Six is enough for anybody.

"One last thing. When I was at Geelong Grammar, having to play this terrible game, some teacher said: 'Tackle low, Murdoch.' So I did, and got a knee in the face. But I noticed that your top guys mostly tackle high. Sometimes they're penalised, sometimes not. Before we finalise these arrangements, could you make up your bloody minds on what is and is not a dangerous tackle?"