A game played by men with odd-shaped balls, as the saying has it. Let’s start with the declaration of interest here: I attended a boy’s grammar school, where rugby was considered the gentlemanly game to play. The secondary modern school played common or garden soccer, you understand, and the preferences of students were irrelevant. Rugby did not interest me in the slightest, but I was forced to play it, along with hockey, lacrosse and other minority interests.
As a shy 11 year old, the physicality of rugby was intimidating but I gave it a go. For several matches in games sessions I got heavily buffeted but escaped with bruises, the worst critique being not that I did not get stuck in but that I didn’t have a clue what to do other than get rid of the pointy thing if it arrived in my arms. However, somehow I managed to score a try and was kept in the team.
In the final inter-form game, however, I was peacefully trotting forwards, eyes over on the far wing where a huddle of boys fought over the pointy object when something hit me in the head. Next thing I know, I’m on the deck looking at a grey sky with a pounding headache and people peering over me. Turns out an opposition player was doing something odd in the opposite direction and, he claimed, kneed me in the head while trying to jump out of the way. Sounds fishy to me, though I was too out for the count to care much at that point. Mild concussion diagnosed, I was allowed to dress and go home, and excused further rugby, ever again as it turns out.
This may help to explain my prejudice against the sport, but it was not for want of trying. My dad, bless him, often took me to rugby league games in my teenage years, and even RU format on occasions, not that I ever gained any huge enthusiasm. As time has gone on, my views on rugby have not mellowed, in spite of occasional viewings on TV, so this blog is merely an explanation. Doubtless the aficionados will come back with their own justification, but they will never convince me otherwise. So here we go:
Rugby is, according to the coaches and commentators alike a “technical sport”, by which they mean the rules are utterly incomprehensible – the Rugby Union would appear to be second only to speedway’s BSPA in terms of pointless rule tinkering – though those changes in recent years have included “bonus points” for tries scored, in a vain attempt to retain some modicum of interest where otherwise there would be none, and matches would be utterly forgettable. It failed, of course.
I once watched a rugby game with someone who has been a lifelong fan. When a penalty was given, the referee waved his arms around in a passable imitation of semaphore, and the defending players retreated, heads bowed. I asked my friend what the penalty was for. He simply shrugged his shoulders and admitted the truth: “I have no idea. You just have to accept that the refs know what they are doing.”
He went on to explain a selection of baffling rules, some of which made the football offside rule or cricket’s LBW laws seem like Janet & John by comparison. They all seemed to have a variety of provisos and exceptions which meant the ordinary fan had not a hope in hell of working out what was going on. For example, in the course of the same game I spotted a knock on (ie. ball travelling forwards out of control of the player.) Play did not stop.
Me: “Why was play not stopped when the ball was knocked forward?”
Friend: “The ball has to hit the ground.”
Me: “It did!”
Friend: “Oh! In that case, I don’t have a clue!”
2) Score inflation
It’s easy in football: a goal is a goal is a goal. In rugby the points vary: the Union code scores 5 for a try, 2 for a conversion and 3 for a penalty or drop goal, with the League code sticking to 4 for a try. First obvious question to ask is why they choose the points so that the minimum you can get for any sort of score is 3, to which the answer is equally obvious – artificially to inflate match scores to make it all look more interesting than it actually is!
3) Score priorities
Second question about scoring: if you are going to watch rugby, you presumably watch it for running rugby with tries scored. What actually happens for the majority of almost any match is that the action grinds to a halt due to a mystifying penalty decision of some sort, and for the next 3 minutes a player lines up a kick towards the sticks. Nobody from the opposition intervenes during this process, which is frankly dull as the proverbial ditchwater.
Then you watch American football (rugby with shoulder pads and quarterbacks), where they a touchdown (where nothing is actually touched down) scores 6 points and any kick 1 point. Oh, and the opposition can run towards the kicker during conversion equivalents. Whatever else you say about the American game, surely they have got the scoring right – set it so a running game is prioritised. Kicking where there is no intervention is pointless and uninteresting!
It is argued by critics that to reduce the value of kicks and increase try scores will simply result in teams giving away more penalties to prevent running rugby, to which my retort is obvious: reduce the number of infringements for which penalties can be given, play advantages and/or sin bin or send off players for “professional fouls.”
4) And talking of running rugby and dumb rules…
Rugby League is somewhat better in this respect than Union thanks to the 6 tackle rule, but running is not what happens. Lots of mucks and rauls (or whatever they are called), scrums and line outs, penalties and stoppages, but nothing remotely interesting to watch! Worse than that, the rules may give rise to lots of indecipherable penalties, but what players get away with seems worse. Didn’t hoisting a team mate up in a line out used to be illegal? Totally infuriating!
I know a significant number of women go to watch rugby because they like to watch the players’ thighs (several have admitted as such to me), but there is simply nothing there worth watching. F1 and tennis are pretty dull to watch, but with rugby I can’t understand why anyone would choose to watch this tedious and inexplicable sport if they could, for example, write! 🙂
6) Value for Money
Football games last 90 minutes, rugby games only 80. This is commonly explained by the sheer physicality of rugby, such that the poor dears get tired and could not last out the extra 10 minutes, which for professional athletes is not an acceptable excuse. Clearly the gate prices should be at least 11% lower. Judging by ticket prices for the 2015 World Cup, stupid price inflation has hit rugby too.
Here, rugby fans proudly proclaim, their sport is top dog. Players don’t argue with the refs, let alone crowd him. Any act of violence is punished by a spell in the sin bin (which in my humble opinion should be compulsory for many offences in football.) In fact, this sport is played by gentlemen who go off to get pissed in bars and sing rude songs together as soon as the match is over.
Except that is not the whole story. All manner of nasty things happen in rucks, mauls and scrums, and very few of them seem to get punished. You may hear about the odd eye-gouging and stamping incident, where they have been caught on TV, but what about all the blind-side punches, scrotum squeezes and all sorts of other unmentionables? They seem to be tolerated as “part of the game.” Don’t tell me they don’t go on – I’ll know you’re lying!
Ah, but they do have a system of “citing” players who allegedly did wicked things behind the ref’s back, though that is of little consolation to the player writhing around on the floor counting his tackle. So much for gentlemanly conduct… This is a vicious slugfest masquerading as a civilised form of entertainment.
Serious point here though: this is the sport where people can and do get paralysed for life as a result of particular types of “tackle” or because of scrum collapses. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s safe or that players behave in a better fashion than in other sports.
So to continue this theme to its inevitable conclusions, ignore what you’ve heard about rugby being a sport played by gentlemen. It is a sport where, in spite of rule changes, terrible injuries occur on a daily basis, to concussion and way beyond. I’m not talking merely about fighting, stamping and other such petulant hooliganism either.
Scrums collapse causing fractured spines and paralysis; “up and over” tackles can do the same. Sending a player off or citing them is too late by that time – someone can be maimed for life with little or no compensation. More than that, players in the professional era are becoming bigger and stronger, such that repeated hits cause brain damage and a lifetime of suffering. As yet the sport has not cottoned on and is in total denial about this – ironic given that even American football is trying to do something to reduce the long-term brain injuries.
Think I’m exaggerating? See here and here. Lots more information here and here too. Unless the sport gets to grips with its responsibilities, many more players will die – and it will be the game’s administrators to blame. Purists may say the last thing they want is for rugby players to be equipped like American footballers, in which case I would ask them what they intend to do to clean up their act and make sure players do not suffer life-threatening injuries week after week.
So, there you have it: that this is not the pleasant, entertaining family sport it claims to be, but something of a bruising and dangerous con. I can see no attraction to compensate for all the many things there are not to like about it. Give me cricket any day!
PS. If you didn’t believe me about injuries, see here for ideas on how injury count could be reduced.