Allan Massie: Bigger, stronger, players mean laws need revision

There are achingly boring matches in every sport. I am old enough to have endured the Scotland-Wales match of 111 line-outs on a dismal February afternoon in 1963. Many will have had comparable experiences watching other sports.

Exeters Henry Slade was unable to lift the tedium. Picture: SNS.
Exeters Henry Slade was unable to lift the tedium. Picture: SNS.

It is not, one should say, always or only sterility or deadlock that is boring. Rugby matches in which each side scores lots of tries far too easily can be just as unsatisfactory. Last Saturday’s Munster-Exeter game in Limerick certainly wasn’t like that. It was hard-fought stuff, brutal indeed, and if you were a supporter of either team, I would guess that you found it gripping.

Yet half an hour into this struggle I found myself bored and, sometime after the hour mark, I switched off. This, I thought, was modern rugby at its most tedious, a war of attrition, Western Front style, played as if one more push would deliver victory.

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So there was the aerial barrage, box-kick after box-kick, and the less than enthralling sight of large hard men repeatedly charging into other large hard men.

Not even the presence on the field of creative players such as Munster’s Joey Carbery and Exeter’s Henry Slade could change the pattern.

Well, of course this was only one match and the Heineken Cup has given us others to delight in, much to savour. Yet it highlighted one of the problems that rugby faces today. Players have become bigger, stronger, faster, fitter and also better handlers.

Exchange of possession, even between two good teams, can be denied for phase after phase after phase. There is less space on the field than ever before, less, I would say, than there was in the distant days when you were onside at scrums and rucks so long as you were behind the ball. There is indeed less space in the physical meaning of the word.

Even long before professionalism was permitted and clubs hastened to recruit defensive coaches from rugby league, my late father-in-law used to say it was ridiculous that the dimensions of a pitch remained what they had been in the 19th century when players were, in general, smaller, lighter and less fit. He had a point, but stadiums would have to be reconstructed to allow pitches to be ten or 15 yards wider.

One hopes that, after the World Cup, the legislators will embark on a thorough revision of the Laws of the Game, especially those relating to the tackle point, with the intention of making it more difficult for the side taking the ball into the tackle to retain possession.

But of course rugby has other and more serious problems than the dull repetitive nature of games such as the Munster-Exeter one. This week’s announcement that the talented South African and Racing 92 stand-off Patrick Lambie is retiring, aged 28, on account of the continuing after-effects of concussion, highlights the gravest one.

It would be no surprise if Leigh Halfpenny soon followed suit. He hasn’t played since he was concussed against Australia on 10 November and this wasn’t his first concussion.

Certainly rugby is taking concussion more seriously than used to be the case. Certainly, again, some concussions are inevitable in any contact sport. There are, too, experiments with the tackle law, some of which may be promising. Moreover, the monitoring of these experiments produces useful information.

In one such trial, Nigel Melville, the RFU’s interim chief executive, notes the danger of incidents which “occurred when a bent-at-the-waist tackler was attempting to tackle a bent-at-the waist ball-carrier”. No surprise there, for the sight of a 20-stone man charging head-down at a player who has to bend to be able to tackle him has long seemed dangerous. Still, it’s good to have statistical evidence, even though it is devilish hard to devise a law which would eliminate this danger.

It is not only concussion, of course. There seem to be more injuries than ever, evidence surely of the style in which the game is played – and lawfully played. Gregor Townsend speaks of the greater strength in depth Scotland now has. Fair enough, that strength in depth is indeed there. It ruddy well has to be, for we have a full XV at least of capped players currently out of action. If anything happened to Stuart McInally in the next week, we would be fielding a fourth-choice hooker against Italy.

Injuries happen in practice and at any level of the game, but I would think that we are approaching a point in professional rugby when a limit is set on the number of games anyone may play in a season, or perhaps the number of minutes on the field.

Yes, there have always been injuries and we can all think of players who retired early on account of them.

Nevertheless, to put matters in perspective, think of this. Only 18 players appeared in the Scotland side that won the Grand Slam in 1984. In one year in the 1970s, Wales fielded the same XV in all four matches of the Five Nations.