Food for thought
Sandra McDonnell reflects upon sporting rules and entertainment
The power and influence of the National Rust, now building upon its daily readership of 1.584 million, continues to confound even our own expectations.
Barely 24 hours after my demand that the rugby authorities should investigate Saturday’s savage and unsavoury Premiership clash between Gloucester and Bath, the RFU has announced that it will be holding a disciplinary hearing.
Daily Telegraph sports columnist and former England hooker Brian Moore has written a strident piece laying most of the blame squarely at the door of the players, despite the coaching staff of both clubs complaining openly about the performance of referee Tim Wigglesworth – see here – DAILY TELEGRAPH
My other suggestion, if the RFU and/or the IRB are ever going to take a proper look at the way things are going in elite rugby, is that they should pay serious attention to both the scrum and the line-out.
This season’s changes to the sequence of the scrum engagement – designed to reduce the impact of the hit in the cause of reducing collapses and endless resets – have done little to that end. Most particularly the referees, who have been instructed to ensure that the ball is now put into the scrum straight, are increasingly ignoring this edict.
Sadly, the same complaint applies also to ‘law’, and indeed the general expectation, that hookers should throw in the ball straight at line-outs.
In the Premiership matches that I watched on television in their entirety over the weekend – i.e. Sale Sharks v Harlequins, Gloucester v Bath Rugby and Saracens v Northampton Saints – I should have said that 70% minimum of both scrums and line-outs began with deliberately skewed ‘put ins’ that were not hauled up by the officials, as supposedly required.
Frankly, if ‘straight’ balls at these set-piece restarts are not going to be mandatory, the essence of traditional rugby union is being undermined. In my humble opinion, the influence of rugby league upon its union counterpart has been approximately 50% positive and 50% negative. If nothing is done, the scrum in union will eventually become as ridiculous as the comedy-turn that is the ‘scrum’ in league – simply, a naked, no-contest, means of re-starting a game quickly which just happens to have the side-effect of keeping the forwards out of the defensive line for a short period.
Tampering with the traditional elements of rugby in the cause of feeding the perceived needs of mass entertainment and popularity is a double-edge sword.
At times during the Saracens v Northampton Saints match yesterday – usually when kickers were preparing to take a pot at goal, or the forward packs were flaffing about and scrums were being set and reset for minutes at a time – I switched across to Sky Sports to see how Liverpool and Manchester City were getting on in their vital soccer Premier League match.
It was sporting entertainment of the highest quality, certainly way above that which was being served up at Allianz Park, the home of Saracens.
The amount of transparent gamesmanship (I hesitate to call it ‘cheating’) in football continues to be a personal turn-off, but I will say this for the sport. The rules are relatively easy to understand and apply and, generally-speaking, a soccer match tends to maintain a consistent momentum, albeit with ebbs and flows as one side or the other gains ascendancy.
Rugby does not measure well in comparison.
I should estimate that, ignoring periods of overtime at the end of each half, any given soccer match is actually ‘in play’ – that is to say, allowing for all times spent waiting for the ball to arrive for a throw-in and/or for a free kick/goal kick/penalty to be taken – for at least 85% of its 90 minute duration.
In rugby, I should imagine that the comparable – ‘uninterrupted play’ – percentage of an 80 minute rugby match is closer to 40% than 50%. The momentum in a rugby match can be disrupted at any time for all sorts of technical offence reasons, both ‘punished’ and not, many of them perpetrated deliberately by players on the team then ‘under the pump’, simply in order to achieve said disruption.
Yesterday I couldn’t help reflecting on the theme that this difference probably goes a long way to explain the relative positions of soccer and rugby union in terms of global support and popularity.