Rugby Union at a Crossroads by David Robertson
If the definition of a ‘perfect storm’ is along the lines of “a particularly bad or critical state of affairs arising from a number of negative and unpredictable factors” then surely that describes rugby union at this juncture of the 21st century. Research continues to clarify the real damage from head injuries, the collision aspects of the sport have never been greater or more incessant and the athletes are all bigger and stronger. Referees scramble to penalize high tackles and pundits speculate about greater penalties for various offences, but, it seems to me that the very obvious point is being missed completely. The shape of the game needs to change dramatically and the law changes that will facilitate that need to be made.
I played, coached and watched rugby for 54 years, some of it fairly intensely so I do have both a love for the game, but I also have significant concerns. Parents all over the world are similarly torn and in France alone the number of youngsters playing the game has dropped considerably. Of course, it is beyond belief that we have not yet developed a different set of laws for young players, say below the age of 18. The laws create the game and it is urgent that we produce a set of laws that will completely downplay the collisions and the situations where the head is rendered more vulnerable. I know that a few ‘rugby minds’ could come up with those law changes and I hope that they do soon. I should try myself so here goes, for what it’s worth!
At the professional level, possession should again become harder to retain, a player going to ground should let the ball go not place it, ‘gang tackling’ should be banned, similarly anything above the shorts. Throwing a player to ground should be outlawed. Tackles should only be made from the side or behind. I would ban ‘up and unders’ and punting ahead in general. The only kicking would be for touch or grubbers. That might put an end to aerial ‘ping-pong’ and to the inevitability of the scrum half’s box kick. The set pieces especially the scrum and the lineout both need fixing, but the scrum is the trickier one. It is such a traditional feature of the game that it would be sad not to preserve it but it is also fraught with danger if not coached properly or refereed well. The gentle engagement and one-meter push should continue for the high school level and below and it’s worth considering that at senior level too. Let’s preserve the scrum, but seek safe ways of making it a contest again and above all, let’s not go to the meaningless crooked feed whose eventual evolution is to the nonsensical scrum in Rugby League.
Boosting in the line-outs (and at kick-offs) can be dangerous so I would question whether it is worth keeping. Skill, athleticism and creativity would again come to the fore if boosting was outlawed and we’d save on a whole lot of tape! Lineouts would return to being about timing and accuracy and, to be frank, there might be fewer of them if a team was less guaranteed to retain possession. There might also be fewer of those five-meter driving mauls which almost inevitably result in a sustained period of physical attrition - our equivalent of trench warfare.
I could go on, but I’m going to stop there. The over-arching aim should be to produce as safe and attractive a game as possible, one where the premium is on speed, skill and fitness, not brute strength. If World Rugby is fulfilling its full mandate of responsibilities then it would be envisaging where and what the game will be in 10 years’ time and commissioning a task-force to assemble all the facts, ideas and statistics to help make good choices. When you are at a crossroads, you have important decisions to make – let’s hope that they do.
[ed. David is the former Headmaster at Shawnigan Lake School, one of Canada's best high school rugby programs. He is now a Consultant specializing in education and leadership.]