The proposed rugby law changes that have been floated this week haven’t so much divided fans as driven a wedge between World Rugby and lovers of the game.
The two most controversial elements of the mooted law changes will render the sport of rugby union unrecognizable to fans.
Those laws are intended to implement stricter tackle controls and change the law surrounding kicks to touch. While the kicking law proposals have split fans, this area has made a lot of fans of the game uncomfortable.
In response to a surge of deaths in French rugby stricter laws surrounding the tackle will be trialled in the amatuer game in the European country.
These include lowering the height of allowed tackles and banning two defenders from teaming up on one ball carrier.
French Rugby Federation’s (FFR) technical director Didier Retiere said this week:
“We’re going to work on lowering the height of the tackle down to the waist and we are aiming to prohibit two-man tackles.
“We have been given the green light for amateur competitions with youngsters and adults and we’re waiting for the green light to eventually bring the changes into the academy competitions.”
“Tackling around the shorts allows the ball carrier to off-load and allows them to break the line.
“Defensive lines will have to put two or three players in the back-field so we could have less players in front line of defence.”
The kicking law changes are also designed to change the fundamental shape of Rugby matches, repeating the theme of multiple defensive lines or more defenders drifting around backfield. The so-called 50/22 laws are modelled on the rugby league’s 40/20 rule, they would give the lineout feed to a team who can find touch directly inside their opponents 22 from inside their own half.
Some fans have supported this measure, feeling that it would lead to ‘smarter’ kicking but others are concerned that it would turn the game into a series of long kicks followed by rolling mauls.
The rule changes will sap rugby of much of its physicality, World Rugby has attempted to paint these measures as attempts to open up the game and make it more exciting but both are intended to reduce collisions between players, thereby limiting injuries to the head, neck and spinal column.
If both measures are introduced into top level rugby the game will be safer but it will also be completely unrecognizable from the sport fans have grown to love.
Rugby has evolved from an admittedly violent past and is in its current form is almost unrecognizable from the game played just a few decades ago. If anything like the infamous battle of Nantes, where Buck Shelford lost four teeth and suffered a ripped scrotum that left one testicle hanging free before being forced off the field with a concussion in the second half, happened today there would be an inquest. Perhaps the only way to make the game safer is to rob it of its physicality but we don’t have to like it, do we?
Rugby has removed rucking, dump tackles, neck roll clean outs, regulated the scrum to the nth degree and made numerous law changes to make the game safer, and it is, but not safe enough for some.
I might be wrong to want rugby to retain a level of physicality that I myself don’t have to be subjected to, like a Roman citizen befuddled by being told that gladiatorial games contravene basic human rights (a concept I realize wasn’t really fully developed in the bronze age). I suspect the bulk of rugby fans will have a more violent reaction to this, and some rugby writers will pin this on some leftist feminist conspiracy to undermine masculinity. I’ll save you some time on that because every leftist feminist I’ve spoken to has no idea that rugby wants to change its tackle laws and frankly don’t give a toss. The notable exception is France’s Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu, who was appointed to her role on the back of work done to make French swimming lessons safer, perhaps a forbear to her mission to tackle deaths in rugby.
But World Rugby isn’t really accountable to the government of France and the drive to make the game safer has been around for almost as long as the game itself. At grassroots level it is primarily driven by parents concerned for the safety of their children, and that is difficult to fault them for.
I was relieved that when I suffered a dead leg playing under 14 rugby, and briefly lay prostrate on the field that my mother did not run onto the pitch from the sidelines. Even at the age of thirteen I understood that I was putting my body and future on the line by playing rugby at high school. In five years at high school that dead leg was the worst injury I would pick up but my anecdotal and extremely limited experience of rugby isn’t empirical fact. Rugby’s aim of zero deaths might not be achievable but it certainly doesn’t have the worst motivation.
The question is, is World Rugby asleep at the wheel, trying to make all their decisions based on a mountain of data that we can’t be sure they are interpreting correctly. Like most sports barring perhaps football (soccer) and basketball, World Rugby is concerned about the game’s future. They have begun moves to shape rugby into a sport they feel could be popular in the future.
Quite where that leaves existing fans is unclear but nothing barring a mass turning away from the game will deter World Rugby at this point.
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