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Rugby’s Groundhog Day: in 30 years not as much has changed as we think

The weekly rugby column in the Guardian is quite interesting this week:

Rugby’s Groundhog Day: in 30 years not as much has changed as we think

The Rugby Championship has highlighted failings union must try to address, and time-wasting would be a good place to start.

The printed messages could hardly be clearer. “Help make the game more exciting for players and spectators alike,” booms the editorial. “Simplify the rules to reduce number of stoppages” and “Improve consistency of refereeing standards” are two of many specific proposals from leading players. “Clamp down on crooked feeds by scrum-halves,” urges someone else.

Welcome to the rugby union equivalent of Groundhog Day. Over the weekend, rummaging around in a cupboard, I stumbled across a copy of the Rugby Who’s Who from 30-odd years ago. Brilliantly curated by my good friend and press box colleague Alex Spink, the old-school player opinions he collated should be as contemporary as ancient Greek. Instead sizeable chunks of it read as if they were dictated yesterday.

Imagine digging up a dusty, long-buried time capsule only to discover little has changed. “Allow players to get on with the game. Too many needless stoppages,” complained Pontypridd’s Dale “The Chief” McIntosh. Up in Scotland, Hawick’s scrum-half Greig Oliver also sounded exasperated. “Make the scrum a means of starting the game not a means of spoiling it.”

Or how about this from Wales’s Rob Howley. “Less kicking and more running.” Or this from the England centre Bryan Barley. “Make sure skills are coached in practice rather than concentrate all the time on fitness and game plans.” Or maybe this from Ireland’s Donal Lenihan. “Standardise refereeing interpretations in northern and southern hemisphere.” Ring any bells for anyone?

It just goes to show the game of rugby union has not progressed quite as far as people sometimes perceive. Yes, professionalism has drastically moved the goalposts in terms of remuneration, body shape and fitness but in other respects today’s players and their distant predecessors have more in common than they might think.

Which begs a question: will everyone still be complaining about the same old stuff in 10, 20 or 30 years’ time? This is absolutely not, by the way, a dig at today’s generation of referees, all far fitter and more painstakingly trained these days. Much has been written, including in these pages, about Mathieu Raynal’s late intervention in the Australia v New Zealand Test in Melbourne but that debate is history now. What really matters is not one high-profile incident – right or wrong – but the increasingly glaring lack of consistency around time-keeping as a whole.

Wind back last weekend’s Argentina v South Africa game, for example, and watch the Pumas kicker Emiliano Boffelli regularly going over the permitted 60 seconds for his early kicks at goal. The Avellaneda stadium in Buenos Aires, home of the football side Independiente, looked great but what would have improved it even more? Correct, a “shot clock” to show everyone precisely where they stood.

Likewise in Melbourne. The main reason Brendan Foley did not kick the ball to touch slightly earlier was because his Wallaby forwards were still huddled together behind him. If he had gone ahead and missed touch Australia would have been stuffed. But imagine, instead, if both sides had been able to glance at the big screen and see the seconds clearly ticking down? It would have completely transformed the narrative.

As it happens the Pumas v Springboks game also showcased another of rugby’s current areas for improvement: the frequent gap for neutrals between big-match expectation and reality. The pre-game anthem in Buenos Aires was enough to make anyone desperate to pull on a pale blue and white jersey and clasp the badge tight. Thereafter, sadly, much of the actual game was a checklist of frustration: suffocating defence, hairline penalty decisions, excessive TMO interventions and umpteen stoppages.

In other words, not a million miles removed from the early 1990s. It is fascinating, in retrospect, to hear the far-sighted solutions being offered by players back then. “Award more points for a try to take emphasis off kicking,” proposed Scotland’s David Sole. Sure enough, the following year in 1992, a try became worth five points rather than four. “Abolish conversions,” suggested Doddie Weir. That hasn’t yet happened but how about six points for a try and a one-point conversion, via a drop-goal, to cut down on modern time-wasters.

England’s Simon Halliday had another good idea. “Kicks at goal to be restricted to foul play and deliberate offside.” His teammate Jeff Probyn was also thinking ahead. “Get touch judges more involved in the running of the game.” Which, given where we are now, is perhaps best filed under the heading “Careful What You Wish For.”

Joking aside, though, the game simply cannot afford to remain stuck in its ways, with every week bringing more worrying concussion-history testimonies from ex-players facing the spectre of early onset dementia. The days of the sport’s administrators simply muddling through and trusting in the players to bail them out ended a while ago.

There absolutely has to be a greater duty of care, potentially involving far-reaching law changes. If the player welfare research currently being undertaken, not least around tackle height, jackalling and head contact at the breakdown, ends up endorsing the 1991 verdicts of Scotland’s Craig Chalmers – “play the game without flankers” – or even his teammate Finlay Calder – “good rucking, although it looks ferocious, is as safe as anything” – then so be it.

One thing, however, is certain: rugby will always be an intrinsically imperfect sport. Here’s hoping the final weekend of the Rugby Championship is uplifting and concludes with us all marvelling at the brilliance of the rugby. But if history tells us anything it is this: universal agreement on exactly what the game should look like is never going to happen.

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