Rugby cannot overlook contact issues and stoppages undermining game

Rugby union’s top guns are preparing for one last mission. That should make this among the sport’s most high profile weekends, with no fewer than four big series deciders taking place on the same day. Not since the 2011 Rugby World Cup quarter-finals weekend in New Zealand has the southern hemisphere simultaneously hosted so many sides with more at stake.

Exciting? Of course. But let’s also not duck the wider reality. Regardless of the series outcomes in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina this is a critical juncture for the sport at all levels. If future generations of fans are to be attracted to the game – and the diehards retained – there are ongoing issues with its premium product that cannot be blithely overlooked.

The first is glaringly obvious to every viewer, casual or otherwise. Even those who love rugby’s gladiatorial element are beginning to wince. Take the Australia v England series. So far, after just two matches – and not counting those absentees who never even made it on to the plane to Australia – nine Wallabies and four English squad members have been ruled out of the series through injury already. That is 13 players in all, equating to approximately one third of the cast.

Imagine a top West End theatre production with over a dozen ‘stand-in’ notes inserted into the programme. The director would be in tears, the audience aghast. It is starting to make Rollerball sound like badminton. And all amid concerted efforts to try and make the sport significantly safer for its participants. Contact sport or not, that level of attrition – whether it be broken bones, severe ligament damage or nasty head knocks – is too much.

The extra power is also changing the shape and feel of the game. Only the other day the Breakdown sat down with a former Test captain, a creative but diminutive footballer. He reckons he would have struggled to get picked at Test level nowadays, so big are the players and so relentless the physicality. For some of the sport’s all-time greats to be shaking their heads at what they are watching, even allowing for ’back in my day’ nostalgia, has to be a concern.

Then there are the repeated stoppages. At one point it felt as if the New Zealand v Ireland game was going to spill over into the early hours of the morning. The cards and big screen replays kept coming, to the point where the referee Jaco Peyper was on screen longer than the players. Goodness knows what first-time rugby viewers made of it.

So well done to Eddie Jones for wading into the debate. “The game is out of control,” suggested England’s head coach at the weekend. “You saw the New Zealand v Ireland test and at one stage the commentators could not count how many players there were on the field. Seriously. They had three backs packing a scrum. We have gone the full hog where everything is a yellow card, everything is a red card. There needs to be some common sense coming back into the game.”

He also pinpointed – “It doesn’t make any sense” – one of the more frustrating laws in any sport: the yellow card for a failed attempted interception that fails to stick. Sin-binning a player who is genuinely trying to catch a ball – unless it is an obviously cynical knock down – has become commonplace and, for southern hemisphere fans in particular, is becoming a massive turn off. Are the law-makers aware of reflex movements? Is pernickety letter-of-the-law zealotry really the way to attract younger viewers?

A reduction in box kicking would also be nice. Kick the ball away following a scrum, by all means, but only after it has been picked up and passed through at least one other pair of hands. That said, I asked one England forward last week to nominate a law change he would personally bring in and he came up with one none us had considered. His proposal was for an offside line to be enforced at the back of a maul to prevent opponents ‘swimming’ up and around the side either to slow or steal the ball. Sides in possession, furthermore, would only be allowed one forward rumble before they had to ‘use it’.

Interesting. No-one likes tinkering with the laws for the sake of it but there is definitely a case for looking again at the permitted number of substitutes. Perhaps there could be six rather than eight, with the freedom to interchange them as required. Not only would it offer sufficient cover but also, hopefully lead to more space later in games and encourage bigger forwards to shed some timber in order to last the pace.

Because, make no mistake, the game cannot just sit on its hands, for all the welcome progress now being made in the area of concussion management. In the UK this week, for example, there is renewed scrutiny on compulsory contact rugby in secondary schools while to be in Australia is to recognise another significant long-term threat. The game has never been the pre-eminent winter code down under but its coverage and profile, for an assortment of reasons, have dipped appreciably.

Then, from a northern hemisphere perspective, there is the shift from a June to a July Test window. Let’s just say that asking international rugby union to go head to head in July with Wimbledon, Test cricket, the Open golf and the Tour de France is not massively helping its media visibility. Here’s to a grand oval-ball finale this Saturday but rugby nirvana remains a way off.