T he RFU committee may no longer be quite the body once vulgarly described by Will Carling. Blazers may have been replaced by smart- suited managers. But the RFU is still capable of pompous stupidity.
This week the announcement of Gregor Townsend’s Scotland squad for the autumn internationals provoked indignant squawks from Twickenham: they are stealing players whose development we have financed. Well, no, not really. The academies in which young players are developed are run by Aviva Premierships clubs for their own benefit and, though the RFU pumps money into them, any club’s first interest is to produce players for itself. Everyone knows that there are many players in England who have dual – even treble – qualifications, and I doubt whether any club has slammed the door against a youngster because he has a Scottish granny.
It’s all a nonsense. As several people have pointed out, English clubs seek out talented boys in Wales and sometimes arrange for them to get rugby scholarships at English schools, a move which may in time help them qualify to play for England. And England don’t themselves hesitate to select players from Fiji or Samoa who have one way or another acquired a qualification. Of course, there are some here in Scotland who would prefer that we field a XV (or XXIII) of bona fide 100 per cent Scots, but there are plenty of English supporters who would rather like to see 15 Englishmen take the field and never expect to do so.
It’s better to accept that eligibility to play for one country or another is fluid and get on with the game. Meanwhile, wheaking from the RFU, the richest union in the sport, is pathetic. The game has far more important and urgent issues to address. First is the undeniable fact that it has become, as Roger Alton puts it, “80 minutes of unsustainable collisions” and almost every match sees players removed from the field because of head injuries and suspected concussion.
One should recognise that this sort of injury is taken far more seriously than used to be the case – even if there are times when players are allowed to return to the field when they shouldn’t be. There are almost certainly fewer cases of concussed players carrying on when their minds are temporarily fogged. Nevertheless, despite laudable attempts to eradicate high tackles, rugby is more dangerous, even at youth level, than it has ever been, and it is more dangerous because players are bigger, stronger and more powerful than ever before. Twenty years ago, Jonah Lomu, pictured, was so exceptional that some regarded him almost as a freak. He would look ordinary in the modern game.
Nobody knows the answer. Limiting the number of permissible replacements so that players have to be able to last 80 minutes and fresh monstrous figures aren’t able to come at the hour mark is one popular suggestion. Tweaking the laws relating to the breakdown is another, in which connection I would suggest disciplining referees who don’t insist that players stay on their feet at the breakdown and who ignore the practice of “taking out” a player who is nowhere near the ball might be a good idea. In time I’m pretty sure that we may decide that 15-a-side is one or two players too many, though there doesn’t seem to be more space on the field in League than in Union.
However, there is one thing that can be done with regard to player welfare and this is to impose a statutory limit on the number of matches anyone can play in a calendar year. This might have a salutary side-effect by reducing the number of replacements if even a few minutes as a substitute counted as a match.
Meanwhile, we will put our doubts and anxieties behind us for a bit as we all gear up for the autumn internationals. Scotland’s task looks harder than it did even a few months ago, not only because we are likely to be missing a few first-choice players, but also because Australia look a much improved and more formidable side – even if Israel Folau is being given a well-earned and much-needed rest. Then, while playing Samoa first might be regarded as a useful warm-up – some warm-up! – before taking on New Zealand, it’s also likely to be a game which will leave quite a few players battered and bruised if, one hopes, nothing worse.
Gregor Townsend has cast his net wide – to the irritation of the RFU – and may have gathered some unexpected gems. Nevertheless, one imagines that the team that will line up against the All Blacks will look pretty familiar – assuming the dressing room after Samoa doesn’t look like an A&E ward or casualty station.