THE SECRET PLAYER
A few weeks ago, my cher ami and fellow legend of the game, Sergio Parisse, was given a straight red card because someone got hurt attempting to tackle him.
what. The actual. flip. In essence, Parisse was first in the baths because he is too tough, strong and aggressive – ie, he was sent off for embodying the fundamental qualities of a good player. He got up from the ensuing ruck, no doubt expecting a celebratory chorus of Ric flair whoops from his team-mates, only to be confronted by a frantic (and clueless) french ref waving his little card at him. Sergio’s confusion was writ large over his beautiful baldy face.
The card was later rescinded but this is one of the more high-profile examples of the game having its gonads removed. There is no doubt that the way we play and watch rugby has been altered over the past three or four years by tinkering from world Rugby. As a spectator, we are now constantly on the lookout for what has suddenly become foul play, unnecessary roughness or whatever officials call it.
A high tackle, until recently just an accepted part of a frenetic, split-second decision sport, is now greeted with pure horror from onlookers, as well as the team-mates of the poor victim. The lawmakers, in erring way too far on the side of safety, have us all treating any minor error of technique or timing as some egregious, premeditated crime.
As a player, a flailing arm to the chops is the least of my worries as I trundle into a wall of defenders. finding a gap at which to aim my head and not getting smashed backwards (thus maintaining my 0.5m per carry average) are my main concerns. Indeed, a high tackle would mean that I had actually put someone off-balance with some footwork. I can only dream of such a moment! Getting clotheslined is a mere fantasy for me.
Part of me thinks that this stricter interpretation of the laws has actually increased the instances of high tackles and catchers being taken out in the air. I don’t remember so many guys being sent arse-over-tit in the past.
There is now nervousness and indecisiveness in players that leads them to mistime hits. I’m at the stage where I don’t even bother challenging in the air, but just let the guy catch the thing and hope to make a tackle.
Still, there is little arguing that some law changes have made the game safer. Banning the neck roll, for instance. The crazy thing is that five years ago every breakdown coach was specifically coaching this as being probably the best clear-out method for getting rid of a jackler. In pairs, you would reluctantly stoop over the ball at a simulated ruck and wait for the other guy to run in and attempt to rip your head off. what larks!
It was dangerous, borderline criminal, but it worked. And, horrible as it was, it was just yet another aspect of rugby you accepted in return for money. By comparison, I once tried teaching an amateur side the same technique and they weren’t remotely interested in getting involved in such silliness.
Amateur and professional rugby bear only a passing resemblance to each other, and by all means people who play for fun should be protected by the laws. But to attempt to emasculate the professional game seems paradoxical to me. You may as well stop boxers smacking each other in the head. The brutality is a big part of why people watch. I’ve had 11 operations in my career, plus countless concussions, and not once did I think to myself: “They really should change the laws of rugby, it’s all a bit too rough.” Although I’ve certainly thought of giving up because the whole endeavour is fundamentally insane.
Professional rugby becoming ultra physical is a horse that has long since bolted. Pros know what they sign up for, they get paid pretty well for doing it, so let us get on with beating each other into a pulp and enjoy the spectacle.
Bewildered Sergio Parisse after his red card