Monday, October 26, 2009

Thoughts on Rugby

I watched some of the London NFL game last night- Patriots against Tampa Bay. It reminded me again with perhaps greater force than usual how inferior American football is to rugby. Sixty minutes of playing time is squeezed into three and a half hours... two eighty minute rugby matches can fit neatly into the same time... Over and over again you see American football players injuring each other with their helmets. Why did old American football not need a helmet, but new American football does? Many linemen (the four or five huge fat guys facing off against four or five equally fat people) are too chunky to engage in any aerobic sport (except maybe Sumo)- and yet have lengthy careers in American football... There are minutes of standing around between each extremely short burst of activity, while people chat, get instructions, eat three course meals etc. The 'plays', as the short bursts of activity are known, are mostly extremely dull. Once you've watched a few American football games, you will recognise the seven or eight plays which get called 95% of the time. That means mainly running up the middle; that, or a short pass to a guy just over the 'line of scrimmage'. The patterns of play are almost completely fixed. Everybody starts each play in exactly the place each time. The quarterback runs backwards a few paces, and his protective line form a shield around him. Everybody else runs off down the pitch. Over and over and over and over again. Until you are asleep.

About once every three games, an interesting play will be called. Maybe the quarterback hands the ball off to a running back who then throws it downfield to a reciever. But mostly not. Play calling is extremely conservative. Need to make a foot to get a first down? Find your fattest running back and have him run straight up the middle behind your fattest lineman- every single time. Most running plays end at approximately the line of scrimmage in a huge pile of lycra-clad limbs. Most passing plays end with the ball being batted down by the defender.

The overwhelming feeling from watching a whole NFL match live and in real time is of fat men standing around looking at each other. Its like discount day at Bobs Big and Tall. Very very occasionally, a game will burst into life, if you have two really high quality teams who both try very hard. But mostly that doesn't happen.

In comparison, rugby union is a riot of action and invention. Not only are the athletes in better shape, they do a lot more work, and a lot more thinking. Each player in rugby is responsible for running the game in his area, and his specialist position. But quite often, they may be required by circumstances to do someone else's specialist task- maybe a back row forward has to be scrumhalf because the actual scrumhalf is under a pile of bodies. Despite rugby having some predetermined 'shapes' determined by rules like those governing offside, the lineout and scrums, quite often in open play there is no shape at all, but a mass of free-flowing movement where guile, trickery and fleetness of mind and hand come to the fore. Quite often rugby players have to improvise because of bad bounces, mud on the ball, an unkind gust of wind or a thousand other contingencies.

And more than any sport I know of, there is a continual tension in rugby between the outstanding individual and his brilliant actions, and the requirement for the team to play as one, in coordination and in a way that will be easy for your teammates to respond to and work with. There is no point a speedy back haring off down the field only to be caught without support and losing the ball at the breakdown. Rugby absolutely requires that you have a living bond of communication between players- or things just don't work right.

As a balance between structured play and unstructured, rugby is a far superior product than American football. If you took away the latters constantly chattering commentators, nobody would stand for three and a half hours of virtually no action.

If I had my preference, they would change the rugby rules a little bit. Scoring would change to encourage more tries. A try would be six points, then one point for the conversion (like in American football). A penalty would be two points, a drop goal three because its harder. Sin bins would be five minutes rather than ten. Ten minute sin-bins ruin games very often. Serious or repeated infractions would result in sendings off rather than sin-binnings. The whole issue of rucks and the breakdown needs to be rethought. At the moment there are a whole slew of rules about tackles, rucks and the breakdown point that conflict and make it virtually impossible to both play within the rules, and administer the rules if you are the referee. Depending on the geographic location, mood of the ref and sunspot activity, rucks can be refereed completely differently. That is stupid. It must be decided once and for all how important it is for rugby that possession of the ball be contested at the tackle-point. At the moment, the rule is that only players who are on their feet can contest a ball; but everything about the breakdown in real rugby matches militates towards people being off their feet- the number of people reaching for the same ball, the fact that a second prior to the ruck the ball carrier was running full speed, the fact that the ball is on the ground etc. So already the rule butts up against the limits of human capability. Add to that that you have to enter rucks like a dowager entering a formal gala- if you dive in you will be penalised for, well, diving in. And if you fail to come in from behind the feet of the hindmost player in the ruck, you will be penalised for coming in at the side. And if you are sprawled out half on your feet and half off and you lay hands on the ball, you might get penalised for playing the ball while on the ground- or you might not. Its a complete mess.

I don't have a ready-made solution. The rugby league breakdown, for instance is laughable. It involves the tackler lying foursquare on top of the ball-carrier, while the latter tries to get up but mainly succeeds in looking like a beetle trapped on his back. Once the ball carrier is up on his feet he passes the ball backwards between his legs. It manages to be both risible and pointless. A change of possession of the ball, which is often one of the main hinges of success in Union, virtually never changes hands at the breakdown in league. So a whole locus of combat is lost. Union should not go down that road in my opinion. So, given that the tackle breakdown area should be contested, how should that take place?

Well, it must take place in a way that mortal human beings (and children) can do it without being freaks of nature. It must be clear when it is not taking place legally. And it must not be too dangerous, while being interestingly combative. So there is a puzzle for those who like puzzles (not me).

I believe that fewer rules make better sport. And that continual rule-invention ruins a sport. Clue: American Football has the largest rule-book of any major sport.

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