Before I start, I am going to put this into context. I love the game of Rugby (Union). I was brought up on the game. My father (RIP) was a prop forward of some repute during the 50's/60’s/70’s. He played the game mostly for local sides, but was good enough that he also played representative rugby. There is a veritable who’s who of International rugby players that he has propped down against during his career (he played against the Barbarians several times). He was that good that he also played games for a few of Wales premier rugby clubs during the 60’s/70’s. So you can say I was brought up on Rugby. I can still remember many an occasion during the late 60’s and (vividly) throughout the 70’s standing on the touchline watching him play rugby.
Of course, with such an influential father, it was natural that I would also play rugby. Unlike my Father, I played in the back row. I was never big enough to ever be considered for the front row (though I did play 2 seasons as a hooker when my club was struggling for front row players). So, I played and, in the earlier years of my fledgling career, I did play some representative rugby (alongside several players who would later go on to play for Wales in the 80’s/90’s).
Rugby, as I experienced it in the 70’s/80’s/90’s, was a brutal game. You asked no quarter and you were given none. Punch-ups and foul play were the name of the game and you knew it, and accepted it. It was rare for me to play a game of rugby that did not find me still struggling to shake off the bumps and bruises accrued during a game (whether by fair means or foul) the following day. Sometimes even days later I would still be suffering from the knocks I had taken – not that it stopped me from taking part in training. In those days, a ‘minor niggle’ was no excuse for not participating in training. Missing training meant you would not be considered for selection for the game on Saturday – no matter how good you were.
Scrums, mauls, rucks, nowhere were you safe from an act of skullduggery. Tackles ? Fuck me, I have seen tackles throughout the years that even made me wince. Hell, I was the perpetrator of several such tackles. Shoulder-charges, spear tackles, high, low, you name it, I have seen it and probably even did such a tackle myself. It was the days when you could legitimately ruck somebody who was lying ‘where they should not’ by means of your boots and studs. We did not have any need of the sin-bin. If you chose to put your body in an offside position you could expect to be rucked out of the way, forcibly if necessary. It certainly made the less ‘sturdy’ think twice before transgressing at a ruck. Myself, I just took it as part of the game. Why ? Because I was what is now a rare breed in rugby union. I was a SPOILER.
I was valued by any team I played for because I was a bloody nuisance. You would always find me in a ruck or maul precisely where I was not supposed to be. My attitude when I played and went into a ruck or maul was that if my side was not going to get the ball, then I would make damn sure the opposition was not going to get it either. This meant that I was frequently rucked, punched, headbutted, kicked and even bitten by opposition players to get me out of the way. As a result, after each game my body would be riddled with cuts, bruises, stamp marks and rucking marks. In short, my body would hurt, restricting my movements for several days. But I did not care. If I came off the pitch without these bruises/cuts/marks, then I had not done my job and would not expect to be selected for the team for the following weekend.
So, what protection did we have ?
For my part, I never played a game without boots that covered my ankles. I could tolerate most things, but a bang on the ankles was seriously painful so I always wore boots that protected my ankles – sacrificing some speed, but saving me (at least some) pain. The front row boys often wore shin pads (though being kicked in the shin was usually the least of their problems) and many of the boys wore gumshields. I was not one of these people as, following a clash of heads on a school rugby tour to Wakefield in the mid-70’s, my front teeth had been loosened. The family I was billeted with in Wakefield just happened to be ‘headed’ by a dentist. He had examined my teeth after that game and advised me never to wear a gumshield. You see, my front teeth had been loosened by the blow and he told me that wearing a gumshield increased the likelihood of my losing all my front teeth if I were to take a heavy blow to the mouth again. Whereas NOT wearing a gumshield meant that if I were to take blow to my mouth, then I might lose an individual tooth, but not all of them. Consequently, I never wore a gumshield again from the age of 14 right through to the age I retired (which was 34). Before you ask, Yes I still have all of my front teeth. In fact throughout my years of playing rugby, I broke bones in my hands, arms, legs, cheekbones (and even cracked two vertebrae in my back – which was what caused my retirement from the game at age 34), but my nose, jaw and teeth remained intact despite the various efforts of many an opponent.
The one protection we were definitely NOT allowed during my time playing the game was body armour. It is commonplace in the game these days. It is indeed rare to see a game of rugby where the players are not wearing body armour (under their jerseys). In my day, you were only allowed body armour on production of a medical note from your GP which you had to show to the Referee before a game. Otherwise, it was not permitted.
The acceptance of body armour is the point at which I believe the game of Rugby Union started to go downhill. The moment that body armour was allowed in rugby can be traced to the first instances of reckless tackling (IMHO). Before that time, you made damn sure you had lined up an opponent properly before you tackled him. Otherwise, it hurt. From the moment body armour was allowed in rugby, the injury rate started rising because players now suddenly felt invincible and made reckless collisions with the opposition. The more advanced the body armour, the bigger the collisions, the bigger the rate of serious injury.
Then the rulemakers started tampering with the rules of the game to make rugby ‘safer’. FFS, rugby is a contact sport. Everybody who plays the game of rugby knows the risks and accepts them. But the efforts to make the game of rugby has, IMHO, actually made the game worse and less safe.
Rugby relies too much on the referee and, in top class or international rugby, the video ref. They have removed ‘real’ rucking from the game, meaning that it is a paradise for the spoilers. Yes, they can get sin-binned for their transgression (sin-binning is another thing that did not exist when I played), but most players will accept a sin-binning for 10 minutes in exchange for stopping a try. Those same players would think twice about doing it if they knew that 8 bulky (and heavy) forwards were about to stamp all over them for daring to spoil an opportunity at a ruck.
The same goes for the scrum. The scrum was, at one time, not a place for the faint hearted. If yoiu played in the scrum (as I did), but especially if you played in the front row (which I also did for a while), then you knew you were in for a torrid time. There was nothing that did not go on in the front row, and even the rows further back knew that and also often got involved. In my day, a scrum was a keen contest. Regardless of whose put-in it was, you had a chance of winning the ball. Nowadays, the scrum is almost non-contestable. Regardless of the fact that the scrum-half puts the ball into the second row (again, not allowed in my day), there is no competition in the scrum at all. The only way you will ever get a win ‘against the head’ in a scrum these days is by pushing the opposition off the ball (and that is rare). Hookers are pretty much unnecessary in a scrum these days. Scrums have been neutered to such an extent that they are as pointless an act as they are in Rugby League. But at least League makes no pretentions that the scrum is anything other than a means to get the game flowing again. In Union, we simply end up with an endless stream of reset scrums, or sin-binnings. Put the scrums back to what they were FFS. Yes, there was skulduggery involved in the scrum in days past, but at least it was a genuine contest, not the farce it is today (and it helped the game flow far better than what we currently have).
The same can be said of the line-outs. All this ‘lifting’ shit is pointless. Just get the fucking ball back in play. Let the players compete for the ball on their own merits. Forget this lifting shit. So what if there is skulduggery involved, that will happen regardless. The whole point is to restart the game and get the play flowing. Rugby these days is far too much standing around doing fuck-all and it is BORING.
Finally, there is the tackling. For the love of god, can Rugby Union possibly castrate itself more than in the tackle area ?
Rugby is a physical game. Yes, sometimes players will get it wrong. More often than not, the person who gets it wrong is the tackler and he hurts himself doing it. Sometimes the tackler mis-times a tackle and it looks bad. But please, quit this penalisation of a player for making a genuine mistake. When a player lines the opposition up for a tackle, it is next to impossible to pull yourself out of the commitment to tackle. In that time, the player to be tackled can do a whole host of things like slip, duck, go to ground etc. But the tackler is already committed and cannot pull out of that commitment or he knows he is going to hurt himself. I agree that dangerous tackles (such as spear tackles – which incidentally were also allowed in my day) or tackles that have obvious malicious intent should be punished. But this constant analysing of tackles MUST stop.
Today we saw Liam Williams sin-binned for a perfectly legitimate tackle. Yes, he caught the Italian player in the face. But there was no obvious intent by Liam Williams to do that. He had committed himself to the tackle and had no idea that the Italian player would try to go to ground and had no way to readjust. The very same thing happened to Anthony Watson, for England, in yesterday’s game against France. Watson did what any player would do in his position. He was beaten by the France’s Fall and simply threw out a desperate last-gasp arm to try and stop him. It was purely instinctive and there was no sinister motive or malice behind it. Yes, I agree it was a penalty try because the Fall would have scored if Watson had not done what he did. But a yellow card ? No way
As stated in the title of this blog, I am fast losing interest in Rugby Union. The constant tinkering of the rules of the game is castrating the game I know and love. They did the same to Soccer. I loved the game of Soccer as it was played in the 1970’s/80’s. It was a genuinely physical game that everybody could get behind. Now you cannot barely breathe on a player without giving away a free-kick or a penalty and I have lost interest in it and completely stopped watching it. Rugby Union is fast going the same way and I am fast losing interest in it the same way I lost interest in Soccer.
Give Rugby Union its soul back. It is a hard physical game and should be played in a hard, physical manner. The way we are going will soon see rugby played by a bunch of hairdressers whose idea of a tackle is blowing a kiss or tapping somebody on the shoulder.
Nobody wants to watch that shit !!