Rugby Union,

State of the Union

Rugby is suffering through an era of defensive play and serious safety worries – but changing certain laws could remedy both those problems, says Stuart Barnes

Something is going wrong. Take a day at Twickenham, for example: it simply isn’t what it once was for the English rugby fan. It’s not just the blaring noise that fills every second of the afternoon, it’s also the vast number of dead seconds and minutes that’s such a cause for concern.

You can sit in the press box, filing to a tight deadline, and realise you’ve entered dead time. Nothing is happening. There’s no movement.

The scrums are set, reset and re-reset. You can listen to an entire Cheltenham race on your phone from the moment the whistle is blown for a scrum to the moment in which the scrum-half feeds the ball. The referee is talking to the forwards, who are standing around… doing nothing.

And then there are line-outs. The ball is kicked to touch from a penalty and the pack stand 20 metres from the place where the hooker will throw in, standing around… doing absolutely nothing.

There are segments of the 80 minutes when no one is injured yet no one is doing anything.

England’s game with Argentina was a dirge from a neutral’s perspective – yet that was a mere warm-up for Japan and the art of nothing one week later.

Forget the trains; quick and exciting as the Premiership may be, the international game is too often a go-slow zone, with Twickenham an epicentre.

In short, there is a deficit of speed – in all senses of the word.

Rugby union is a game of subtle skills and bludgeoning power, but in the age of immediate entertainment it has to recognise its need to attract new viewers.

There is an unarguable perception that rugby is on the edge of an existential crisis because of the health and safety issue. Head injury assessments (HIAs) are perceived as a threat from the youngest children playing at their local schools and clubs, through to every layer of club rugby.

There’s no doubting the importance of eradicating the risks as much as possible (although the sport can’t ever be safe, no more than the daily existence that is each and every one of our lives), but most that is wrong with rugby and all that can potentially be made right is linked to a reassessment of the sport; one inextricably bound with making the game faster, more spectacular and with it safer.

The laws of the sport need an overhaul, yet this most conservative of sports is deadly slow to act.

There was a time when hookers rarely scored tries. Now the hooker is a scoring machine. Tucked in at the back of a driving maul – with seven teammates effectively blocking the opposition’s route to the ball – he is to all intents and purposes untouchable.

The line-out five metres from the opposing try line is a legalised offside in all but word. No wonder so many hookers score. Partisans don’t care if it’s their team scoring, but for newcomers it’s deadly dull.

Yet this 50/50 chance of a close-range score is rated worthy of five points, as much as a wonder try from the other end of the earth. This is an example of the need to rethink. Back in the 1960s teams could kick the ball into touch from ANYWHERE on the field. It was an easy way to make yards without taking risks.

The sport recognised the shift and changed the law. The ball could only be kicked out on the full from one’s own 25 (yards as it then was); otherwise it had to be bounced into touch. Kicking became more skilled but, more importantly, it disincentivised the easy option of kicking the ball out and slowing the sport.

We need lawmakers thinking more sharply on their feet. Cut back on the points scored, take the conversion option away. Anything – but shrink the value. Maybe even ban lifting at the line-out. The set piece would become both quicker for all and more competitive for the opposing side. That in itself would be another reason to kick less.

At the breakdown, referees allow players to charge into the melee without binding, as the current law demands. They let players fly into the breakdown as long as they’re on their feet. Why, when the laws forbid it? Because there is a new creature within the sport.

They are known as the jackal – a specialist who locks their body over the tackled/tackler and grips on to possession. They’ll win a penalty or turnover if nobody knocks him out of the way, and to do that there will need by quite the collision. The binding law was designed for a pre-jackal age.

England’s game with Argentina was a dirge from a neutral’s perspective – yet that was a mere warm-up for Japan and the art of nothing one week later.

The jackal wins the penalty, but the risk of players getting hit – not necessarily in the head – again and again is an incentive to avoid the agony of what can be a glorious game. The jackal is part and parcel of the health and safety issue. It’s integral, but the sport allows this recent interloper to continue to steal ball, slow the game, stop forwards attacking tackle areas on their feet in numbers to ruck the possession back with their feet.

An old-fashioned ruck, with men ON their feet and battling over the ball in numbers, creates space elsewhere. SPEED!

Speed is the friend of attacking ambition and the enemy of defensive negativity. Head injuries are going to help the game save the attacking instinct as well as protect individuals and the game itself – for players and spectators. Union is working hard to prevent high tackles. Many refereeing decisions are harsh on the defender, but the sport must keep whistling.

It has to eliminate the risk. When I was a kid there were few high tackles, but then again there were few professional defence coaches arriving from rugby league, intent on stopping the offload by a ball carrier.

The point of tackling high is not some nefarious act of violence; rather, it’s a critical part of stopping the attacker passing the ball and a support runner into space. Defence has dominated the sport since the advent of professionalism.

Yet, with the sport in the depth of a perceived health crisis, opportunities exist for the game to enjoy its first golden age of attacking rugby, with the high scores witnessed at club level slowly being reproduced in even the pressurised world of the Test arena.

France has a vibrant club scene; the English one is thriving on the field but needs a vision from the RFU and a will to grow the game rather than just enhance the monopolistic business too many backers of the game would like it to be. Rugby league has not conquered union because it has failed to escape Yorkshire and Lancashire.

There is a lesson for union: it must establish strong bases the length and breadth of the country, from Doncaster to Penzance. It can’t settle for the traditions of its small cities and market towns like Gloucester, Northampton, Bath and the affluent London suburbs.

If the sport is to cement its position as attendant to football, it has to do a certain number of things better than it has to date. It needs to address health and safety without forgetting about the essence of the game.

Laws must refocus on making speed and power the pre-eminent spectacle – a sport where 82,000 people head home from Twickenham saying: “My God, but that was good.” Whether such a vision exists…

Stuart Barnes won 10 England caps and is a rugby commentator and analyst for Sky Sports.

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