The Tight Head – Is Rugby Becoming Softer?

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last few days, you’ll be well aware of the controversial refereeing calls made during the Boks vs All Black Test this past weekend. Almost every rugby scribe has penned their opinion on the Test and, in particular, the yellow cards shown to Bismarck du Plessis, Kieran Read and Ma’a Nonu.

The issue has been tackled – about as forcefully as if by Bismarck himself. It happened. It was a bum call, but it’s done. Let’s put it to bed.

Bismarck du Plessis

A more overarching question arises in whether rugby as a sport has become (or is becoming) less physical as a result of new laws and directives issued to referees. If the answer is yes, follow up questions arise such as whether such a move is a correct one and who ought to shoulder the blame for the change.

My personal view is quite the opposite. Rugby has become tougher – so tough in fact that laws needed to be brought in to control certain aspects of the game to avoid players seriously injuring each other. Rugby players are getting bigger, stronger and faster each season. The motivation to stand out within a team also increases each season with the appeal of landing a lucrative playing contact. The combination of these two elements results in high intensity, supremely physical contests week in week out.

If you don’t believe me, ask a guy like Sam Cane if rugby is getting any softer. Irrespective of what could have been, but wasn’t, one of the best Bok/ All Black Tests for some time, the Test was still immensely physical. Players from both sides were going at it hammer and tongs for the full 80 minutes, none more so than Cane. The amount of times he needed to be patched up on the side lines, only to come back for more was impressive for a youngster tasked with filling Richie McCaw’s boots.

Sam Cane showing how soft Rugby isn’t

With the increased strength and size of players, if they were still allowed to tip-tackle, tackle players in the air or pull down line-out jumpers as if in the old days, we would end up with far more season-ending injuries than we already do. The intention of “safety-orientated” laws isn’t flawed. A sport where emotion, intensity and physicality are at their peak simply needs to be carefully regulated in order for the sport to thrive. Where the system is being let down is by those applying the laws – the Romain Poites’ of the world.

Romain Poite yellow carding Du Plessis

Referees simply need to become better. If they want to be paid the best to officiate the best matches, they need to be the best. They are letting the law makers, coaches, players and the public down. There is no doubt that it is an extremely difficult task, hence the fact that there are 4 sets of adjudicating eyes on each match and a barrage of technology at their fingertips. Use the stuff, guys. And how about you all get around a table once a month, review each other’s work and decide, as a unit, what can fly and what can’t. Surely it will benefit the game if the world’s top 10 referees meet regularly to review and discuss each other’s performances on a no nonsense basis, with a strict view to creating consistency among their ranks.

Something else which may also go a long way to ensuing rugby’s hard but fair status is some accountability for match officials. If a player goes overboard, he gets punished. Same to for coaches and supporters, one way or another. Is it so wrong to expect a referee to similarly have his performance publicly reviewed and to, for example, have his match fee reduced for blatant poor decisions? Hell, at this stage I think we would settle for an apology from Poite himself as a start.

That tackle on Carter

In conclusion, I certainly don’t think the game is getting softer. Rugby is more physical now than ever and it can be seen in the amount of injuries, blood bin and concussion checks resulting from most games. The rules being put in place which may be regarded by some as intended to make the game softer, have been brought in to ensure player safety as a result of increased physicality.

Referees simply need to get a hold of how to apply these rules properly to avoid destroying the game. Maintaining the physicality and playing a safe game are not mutually exclusive concepts.

And for goodness sake, use the bloody technology at your disposal.

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