Brendan Fanning: 'Game edging towards poorly signed crossroads on and off field'
Lurking equity firm may cause bigger issues than player welfare, writes Brendan Fanning
We have all at some point identified with the joke about the tourist in rural Ireland who stops to ask a local for directions. Abandoned by the signposting system in this country, which is downright sinister, the holidaymaker is marooned. Then the local scratches his head before answering: "Well, I wouldn't be starting from here."
It's the local we identify with on this one for we feel the same way about rugby. The most frequently recurring feature on the game's map is a crossroads. Currently there are a clatter of signposts so it's hard to know whether to turn left, right or plough straight ahead. To add to the confusion, it's not clear if the safety of the game and its financial well-being are even on the same stretch of road.
Safety first. The next amendment off the conveyor belt looks like it's an aesthetic but actually has potential to achieve the tricky target of freeing up some space. In the evolution of the modern rugby player the greatest casualty - well, aside from the players themselves - has been the size of the stage. The dimensions have not changed, aside from in-goal areas being shortened on synthetic pitches, but the development of bigger, faster, stronger actors - along with increased ball-in-play time and a small army of replacements - has meant there are fewer places to hide from the humongous hits.
If you needed further evidence of this then yesterday's compelling but bruising curtain raiser on the European menu, the meeting of Edinburgh and Munster in Murrayfield, provided it in glorious technicolour.
So tweaking rugby league's 40-20 rule to a 50-22 version for our game looks to have real potential. Dinking the ball from your own half to run out of play in the opposition 22 should force the defence to recruit from the front-line to resource the back-field. And if it works you get the lineout throw to restart the game. If it works on every level then you'll have more space to run with, and therefore fewer collisions.
Moreover, the proposal to review yellow cards, during the 10-minute punishment, with the possibility of an upgrade to red, will help in discouraging those from high, late or any other class of hits that draw attention from referees.
These latest shifts in the game came out of the recent World Rugby Player Welfare and Law Symposium in Paris. Rugby tries hard to stay on top of the game and to make safer a pastime that is inherently dangerous, and seemingly the Paris gig was full of honest endeavour. It even addressed an issue which manages to slide under the carpet season after season from the pro game down to the bottom rung of amateur land: the back foot.
We don't know when the offside line in rugby settled on the hindmost foot of the ruck but it was the days of very baggy shorts, black and white TV, and no pay for play. Ritually, however, it is ignored. The irony of elevating touch judges to the title of assistant referees is best summed up by their uselessness on this issue which fundamentally impacts on the space available on the field.
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Referees come in all shapes and sizes but in our experience a massive rump of them are united in their love of the power that comes with blowing the whistle and dictating what happens next. Lots of them want to be loved though. And that's a big problem when applying the law on rear-foot offside, which would involve blowing the whistle so many times as to be rugby's equivalent of Thomas the Tank Engine's mate, the Fat Controller.
Coaches tend to be quick to react, however. So yes, it would be a couple of weeks of carnage, with record numbers of penalties, but then players would adapt. And the game would improve. The problem we fear is in referees being reassured that they won't be thrown under the bus in that painful period of transition. So it doesn't happen.
Alain Rolland, World Rugby's (WR) referees' boss, was at the Paris gig when the issue of taking a big stick to those who live on the wrong side of the offside line was discussed. He needs to effect positive change here. WR's Laws Review Group will meet in May and make recommendations on what should be trialled next year but this doesn't require any hearing - just political will.
After health and safety come questions of cash. In a professional game they never go away. And in a professional game that got dressed in the dark in the summer of '95 before shambling out the door and announcing itself, they are even more relevant. You may have noticed last week the confirmation that the Scottish Rugby Union have taken close to a 30 per cent stake in the Washington side who will be joining America's Major League Rugby (MLR) next year. Harlequins and the (English) RFU have each lost a few bob speculating on the American market, albeit in the less than functional marketing arm of USA rugby rather than the current MLR, which seems to have promise.
Why invest in the US? Because it's the sports market that is papered wall to wall with $ signs, if only folks could find the right door to get in. The IRFU, who we understand trousered €250,000 for committing the four provincial A sides to the current, pathetic playdate with the New England Jumping Jacks in Boston, also talked to the New York United MLR side in the hope of a hook up. And the PRO14, who give the impression they would drop their drawers for anyone with an open wallet, have also hankered bigly after making America great again.
It's small beer, however, compared to the presence in the schoolyard of private equity firm CVC Capital Partners. They have already recruited England's Premiership and their target is to give rugby as much lunch money up front as the sport can carry, and then shift the goalposts solely to suit themselves. The Six Nations is their big target. If they get a foot in the door there then tweaking the laws will be the least of our problems. And adequate signposting won't save the day.
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