A question of survival: the ruck and rugby’s future

the 2003 Brumbies, doing their part to wreck rugby. Photo: Peter McIntosh
the 2003 Brumbies, doing their part to wreck rugby. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Band-Aids cannot cure what ails rugby, former Otago player and administrator Bill Thompson argues.

About 18 or 20 years ago the ACT Brumbies developed a new version of rugby. It dictated that the forwards not engage in rucks as in the past, but spread out in a line across the field as they do in rugby league.

This created a confused mindset in the opposition because even if they won the ball, which they did, they were faced with a wall of defenders to bash their way through. Of course the Brumbies were reckoning on knock-ons or whatever, meaning they could win the loose ball, or win the ensuing scrum.

In their wisdom coaches thought the only way to play the new version of rugby was to do as the Brumbies did. They copied them, and abandoned the ruck.

The game become a morphed version of league, and coaches in all the other teams failed to figure out what the Brumbies were doing to the game.

This was the start of rugby becoming a much less exciting game; hitherto the backs had room to run and pass, and create a spectacle for the paying public to appreciate and enjoy. From the day the Brumbies introduced this change, the game was on a downhill slope.

What I have described above is not rugby, although for those younger than 20 or 25 it is the only game they have known. Thankfully, there are recorded games from the 1980s and ’90s that show what exciting rugby was all about. If there are those who have not witnessed how the game was played and how it flowed, the evidence is stored safely for all to witness.

Then things get worse. Following the British and Irish Lions tour in 1993, there was much complaint from the Lions forwards in regard to the ruck. They did not appreciate being physically rucked out of a ruck if they had been lying on the ball, or failing to roll out on the ruck.

The rules of the day did not permit a player to remain on the ground, thus hindering one or other pack of forwards winning the ball. The British forwards objected to receiving sprig mark stripes on their bodies — yet no major or permanent damage was ever done to any forward thus removed from the ruck.

That rule meant the team that had the greatest number of forwards committed to the ruck could push their opposition backwards, and off the ball and in so doing present the ball quickly for their backs to perform their magic.

It made for a faster game because the ruck was upright and a faster means of moving on from a tackle or broken play. Critically, it was visible to the onlooker and did not attract the criticism constantly directed at the current maul.

Thus the British were the originators of the maul ... and the southern hemisphere unions went along with it. It has done nothing for the game other than to slow it down and inflict injuries on players, most of whom break the rules as they dive into or on to the heap of bodies in the maul.

All this shambles, of players going in all directions, totally confuses the long-suffering public, who don’t know what rule the ref is going to blow the whistle for because the rules are such a mystery.

The maul has to be dispensed with, and the ruck returned as the means of keeping the game flowing following a breakdown,

i.e. where a back is tackled or a knock-on occurs and where the opposition gains possession.

Yes, I realise this is back to the future, but if the game is to become great again we must surely have learned something from the past. We have certainly learned a lot from the present, and it has not been good.

Health and safety must be addressed and this must involve common sense. Yes, I realise it is not common nowadays, but nonetheless, it must still exist.

The use of the hit shield must be abandoned and the sooner the better. Our players at all levels of the game are coached to crash and bash into the hit shield, but where is it held? Yes, the holder holds it against the upper body at about chest height.

We wonder why so many players get pinged for high tackles and for head-to-head clashes. I suggest the hit shield has conditioned so many players mentally to go high, and now they have difficulty going low.

The same applies to the use of the tackle bag. Unless there are bold markings on the bag identifying knee level and hip level on the bag, a tackling exercise is a waste of time. At present the psyche of the tackle is not learned and some players find it difficult to go low and make a good tackle, because they just tackle the bag wherever.

In regard to the flow of the game of rugby today, it must be said that 20-25 minutes of actual playing time is abhorrent. The lawmakers have to attend to both the time taken to set a scrum and to form a lineout. Both are now the victims of time wasting and, in many cases, of poor refereeing. The scrum has now become a major impediment to the flow of the game.

Until the prop forwards are told that their inside foot must be up/forward and is actually a prop, to prevent the collapse of the scrum, the scrum will remain a major obstacle to the flow of the game.

In recent weeks we have been forced to witness time wasting at lineouts. The referee should have the gumption to immediately whistle a penalty and award it against the offending time wasters.

A good referee should be almost invisible as they administer the contest. Sadly, that is not now the case, mostly due to safety concerns and their dedication to get it right — even if in doing so the game is ruined as a spectacle and one team gains an unfair advantage.

Surely there should be some form of justice evident in today’s game? For a team to lose a player with a yellow card is surely a punishment, but the rules say penalty. So the opposition has the opportunity to gain three points, on top of the loss of a player from the offending team.

There is no justice in two punishments for the one misdemeanour. But it gets worse, because there is a faceless person in the stand whose task appears to be to monitor every facet of play, regardless of whether or not the referee requires their input.

The TMO must either be retired forever as an experiment that went wrong, or have a proper job description. At present that position seems open to the TMO as to how the job is done and to what level of control they wish to apply.

The above dissertation is an attempt to raise some of the issues that need to be attended to if the game is to survive. At present unions around the globe have their heads in the sand while presiding over the death of the great game of rugby.

The issues are basically cause and effect, and if the cause is not identified, any "Band-Aids" applied can never cure the problem.

 - Bill Thompson is a former Otago and Canterbury player, former ORFU board member and a life member of Otago University Rugby Club.