Breaking the Code

Something is irrevocably broken in a professional spectator sport when one of your first inquiries ahead of a big game is to check who is on the refereeing panel.

Rugby at the highest levels has become a lottery. Red and yellow cards, often inconsistently applied, are deciding the outcome of matches far too often. Video referees are calling play back multiple phases to check for suspected ‘foul play’. Games are thus stopped for tedious on-field inquisitions that destroy the momentum and leave attention-wandering watchers at home listlessly flicking back to their phones.

Attacking play too often now is disadvantaged by offside rush defences. Playmakers are loathe to chance their arms for fear of being isolated. The game is reduced to aerial ping pong, endless box kicks and rolling mauls, which appear indefensible and which, for most of the public, are like watching cement dry. Players deliberately waste time and seek to milk penalties. The aim is no longer so much to play rugby, but to play the officials.

This is not an uncommon view. Many people would now agree that the flow and beauty of the game of rugby union has been destroyed by whatever-it-takes professionalism and cynical time-wasting tactics, alongside the paranoia from the World Rugby authorities about class actions over the long-term damage created by frequent concussions.

I’ve always been a rugby union tragic, ever eager to defend the code to my Australian friends and colleagues who extol the superior entertainment value of NRL or AFL, but I am now increasingly inclined to agree with them. So many times I have sat down in recent years with excited anticipation to watch an international test, only to end up feeling cheated and disappointed in the product. And this is irrespective of who is playing.

In saying this, I am well aware of the completely understandable and justified need to preserve player welfare. No-one wants to see still young men struggling with premature dementia because of head knocks suffered on the rugby field. But I question whether the current highly legalistic approach to this issue, where every game is turned into an on-field coronial inquest, is the answer.

The onus is on the law-makers to fix this. The rules need to be tweaked so as to return the code to the way it was once played, where there was a reward for flair and risk-taking, where joyful athleticism trumped cynical gamesmanship, where officials were more focused on the spirit of the law than on its letter, and where the opinion of the paying public was given precedence.

Of course, you may well say that this criticism just boils down to a vain wish for a return to the virtues of the amateur over the professional code - in other words, a futile desire to turn the clock back. On the other hand, if money and markets now rule the game (as they are doing in every inch of our lives), the cash registers will soon go silent anyway if this dour, ugly and pointless spectacle is allowed to continue.

Meanwhile, in women’s rugby we see a glimpse of what used to be….

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