Rugby

A good game ruined: rugby’s rules conundrum

In less egalitarian lands than Aotearoa, it is oft said that rugby league is a simple game for simple people, while rugby union is a complicated game for posh, er… people.

Like many sweeping generalisations, there is an element of truth in that view.

Rugby’s dedication to eschewing simplicity remains undimmed, if the game’s reintroduction to the public consciousness via Super Rugby over the weekend was anything to go by.

While the matches between the Blues and Highlanders on Friday night and Chiefs and Crusaders on Saturday bordered on the sublime, they came bearing thorns. Those prickly bits came in the shape of yet another raft of rule changes - and a stark reminder that the game’s best attempts to deal with potential head injuries remain deeply flawed.

Given the inevitable outcome of bemused spectators and a great contest ruined, it would be easy to aim a drop punt squarely in the direction of the rules officials and committees that continue to make rugby union the Rubik’s Cube of ball sports. Yet, as tempting as it is to play the man rather than the ball after yet another raft of changes, the truth is that rugby needs these regular tweaks to its fundamentals.

Without them, a game based in no small measure on exploiting chinks in the rules it ostentatiously refers to as ‘laws’ inevitably descends into an ugly shitfest.

While the sport thrives on creativity, clever bugger coaches spend as much time devising ways to wreak destruction as they do coming up with strategies to avoid it. The art of killing the opposition’s ball will always be every bit as crucial to success as doing anything constructive with it.

These near-constant law changes and interpretations aren’t a case of seeking a perfection that remains tantalisingly just over the horizon. They are an attempt to preserve the uneasy balance between darkness and light in the face of human nature.

Rugby now finds itself in a bind between its stated aim of eliminating all contact to the head of the ball carrier and the requirement not to have matches ruined by rules that, for a sport based on physical confrontation, border on castration.

And there is no end to the cycle.

There is no future that doesn’t begin with Justin Marshall patiently explaining to both himself and his audience that a tackler must now return to his or her own side of the ruck and come through 'the gate' before playing the ball. And that the ball no longer needs to be fed into the middle of the scrum but must still be fed straight, where it can now be hooked by any player in the front row.

Oh dear.

There are in fact six law changes now in effect in Super Rugby 2018, although sharp-eyed observers will have noted they have been previously rolled out in tests matches in November and in a limited form at the women’s world cup.

That level of change is about par for the course for a sport that has never stopped evolving since someone made up a fable about a clergyman running with a football in hand in 1823.

Rugby’s fondness for change is so pronounced that this column once earned a living reporting substantively on the subject.

Perhaps inspired by Peter Jackson’s early-to-mid-2000s Lord of the Rings trilogy, rugby produced its own cast of ELVs in 2006. In truth, there wasn’t much of a synergy between the 23 Experimental Law Variations trailed at Stellenbosch University and JRR Tolkein’s work – other than the fact the mental gymnastics required to understand the ELVs did inspire a good few trips to the pub to get Legolas, and that both quests took an age to achieve very little.

After a three-year trial and roll-out process, the more radical ELVs – such as allowing hands to be used in rucks and mauls to be pulled down – were scrapped.

Ultimately, 10 of the 23 ELVs came into effect – including defensive lines being set five metres back from a scrum (tick), corner flags no longer being considered as part of the field of play (tick) and touch judges being referred to as assistant referees (wtf?).

The whole thing was quite some hullaballoo, given the limited nature of what was achieved.

Interestingly, not a single ELV was intended to limit the exposure to or impact of concussion.

An ability to evolve has always been one of rugby’s greatest strengths. On the evidence of the weekend, the game will need to lean heavily on that tradition if it is to emerge from a predicament that looks awfully like check-mate.

Which brings us to the most significant rules-related issue to arise over the weekend: the annoyingly correct decision to sin bin Chiefs loose forward Lachlan Boshier and award a penalty try for his tackle on Crusaders back Ryan Crotty in the closing stages of Saturday night’s thereafter ruined match.

Boshier made very light and entirely unavoidable contact with Crotty’s head as the Crusader attempted to score in the corner with a low dive towards the tryline. With Crotty leading with his head, Boshier had only two options: attempt the tackle and almost certainly concede a penalty try, or let Crotty score uncontested.

Given that the second option is yet to be accepted as a legitimate action for a professional rugby player, Boshier found himself in a bit of a bind. So too did the match officials, who had no choice but to sanction Boshier and the Chiefs, skewering a darn good contest in the process.

The whole situation was deeply unsatisfactory. But it wasn’t the first time this has happened, and it most certainly won’t be the last. On the off-chance they weren’t already, coaches will now be instructing players attacking the tryline to go low early and, when possible, draw contact to the head.

Rugby now finds itself in a bind between its stated aim of eliminating all contact to the head of the ball carrier and the requirement not to have matches ruined by rules that, for a sport based on physical confrontation, border on castration.

Sadly, we’re now a very small step away from Marshy patiently explaining that the correct play was for Boshier not to attempt the tackle at all, thus preserving his place on the field while making the Crusaders attempt a conversion from the touchline.

An ability to evolve has always been one of rugby’s greatest strengths. On the evidence of the weekend, the game will need to lean heavily on that tradition if it is to emerge from a predicament that looks awfully like check-mate.

There is no going back on rules established to protect players from long-term harm. And there can be no fudging their implementation because a game happens to be close and an offence occurs at a crucial time on a particular part of the field.

On the other hand, the current rules regarding head contact are already ruining matches despite not yet being fully exploited. Worse is almost certainly yet to come.

A dark shadow has risen over Middle Earth. And the ELVs appear powerless to combat it.

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