SSometimes, when faced with a serious dilemma, it’s worth stepping back to the beginning. It can also sometimes help to open up a dictionary and check, for example, the precise definition of a sport. So here’s a quiz question: which of the following appears next to the word “rugby” in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary? Is it a) a collision-based game, b) a physical competition or c) a contact sport? Take your time because this is important.
Because, interestingly, the above-mentioned dictionary list does not include any of the three descriptions above. Instead it reads simply, “The game is played with an oval ball that can be kicked or carried.” Keep this in mind as you ponder what modern rugby union should be all about and whether it has become too confusing halfway through for players, referees and fans.
However, in the vital quest to make the game “safer,” massive athletes are increasingly asked to dance on the head of an impossible pin. Being a player, a coach or a match official is also about not being sure of what constitutes “foul play”. The weekend saw some high-profile case studies that, in their different ways, cut to the heart of the intricate debate.
Take Guy Porter’s red card for Leicester in Clermont for a head-to-head match with the massive Fritz Lee. Neither of them had the ball and had essentially collided with each other. Bad game? It was more like watching two people in a crowded pub, both equally intent on not pouring their pints, not meeting each other and accidentally meeting each other. Was it the fault of the disoriented visitor who had never visited the bar before or of the regular who did not check his regular itinerary at the dard board was it clear? Or none of them?
By letter of the law, however, there was a head contact. Therefore, the Georgian referee, otherwise excellent, Nika Amashukeli felt that he had no choice but to show the red goalkeeper. Head injuries have to be reduced in some way. Even senior World Rugby officials, however, privately acknowledged on Monday that the framework used to determine such incidents may need tweaking. Porter did not lower his body height because, with the ball bouncing from the back back to mannequin runner Lee, there was no obvious tackle to make.
Next up is the Exeter v Munster game and the yellow card shown to Olly Woodburn for catching a visiting header with a forearm as she tried to clear a second-half ruck. According to Rob Baxter, Exeter’s rugby manager, there was nothing unusual about it: “This is a clear-out rugby that has happened probably 30 or 40 times in a game. I can go downstairs and drive 20 rucks where someone’s arms when tied to a ruck went into a head.
“In the absolute letter of the law, it’s maybe a penalty, maybe a yellow card, but if we need to freeze any damage, there will be a tremendous amount of yellow cards. I think we’ve gone through that, I think we were looking for a “Clear and definitive high contact with the heads and faces without mitigation and without falling into height. This feels like it goes against everything.”
Rather like that. In which case, how come Jamison Gibson-Park didn’t look red for a straight shoulder to the head of his opposing number Kieran Marmion in Friday’s game between Connacht and Leinster? These things are magnified by the two-legged nature of European weekend ties, but the inconsistent decision has major implications. Porter’s red card, as it turned out, did not cost Leicester victory, but it was to the remaining 14 Tigers who play outside of their collective skin.
So what next? To be clear, this is emphatically not one of those ridiculous “the game is gone soft” articles that only show an alarming ignorance about the commitment and dynamism of today’s players, no matter the vital importance of prioritize brain health. The tragic news from South Africa over the weekend, in which 18-year-old Liyabona Teyise died after a school game, is just another reminder that rugby is a game with an inherent element of risk attached to it.
Other sports like equestrianism can be dangerous, but that’s not the point. Neither a 20-minute red card is way ahead. The game could push the offside line further back into neutral “blitz” defenses. Or reduce substitutions to increase the prospect of more space later in the games. What if the teams only allowed a certain maximum number of phases on the 22nd opposite, after which the ball is automatically returned? It doesn’t matter if you feel too close to the rugby league. How else to reduce the number of loads upside down, from bones to human brick walls by two meters?
Because the current truth is that the rugby of the two codes is stuck between a ruck and a hard place. No respected manager can happily ignore the litigation that hangs over the sport, the number of first-class injuries, the premature retirements of talented athletes still in their 20s or parental reservations. But is there another sport in which the definition of foul play becomes less clear and obvious? Rugby doesn’t have to be completely redefined, but it needs to decide what kind of sport it wants to be.