Covid has kicked rugby into touch

Review: Archie Henderson

Unholy Union – When rugby collided with the modern world, by Michael Aylwin with Mark Evans (Constable)

Never mind the mindless ban on booze or smokes, a winter without rugby has been bloody awful. Our rugby season has been cold, bleak and miserable without anything or anyone to cheer for from the terraces or the TV couch.

As if that were not bad enough, there might be little to cheer about even when this virus is overwhelmed, if it ever is. The game we love could be very different and a much-loved part of it might even have begun to disappear.

When Michael Aylwin, a rugby writer on Britain’s Guardian newspaper, collaborated with Mark Evans, a former CEO of Harlequins RFC in England, to write this book, Covid-19 was not even on the horizon. Now it’s on the touchline, and it could change everything.

For a start, it could hasten the full takeover by professionalism, which the authors believe might not be such a bad thing. Many would differ.

Where they do agree is that such a development, if it leads to the extinction of community rugby, would deprive the game of its charms – indeed its soul – and turn rugby from a participation sport into a spectator game. That would make it more like American football, which has a single elite league, with no promotion and relegation where everyone watches and in which only the elite participate.

The book, often elliptical, traces the origins of rugby and debunks its greatest myth. William Webb Ellis, a pupil at the school of Rugby in England, may well have picked up the ball and run with it, but he was one of many – and not the first or even the best at it. Yet there is his name on rugby’s World Cup, the Webb Ellis Trophy.

Rugby might also have become as popular worldwide as soccer (its sibling, according to the authors) if it had not clung to amateurism and public-school exclusivity. Picking up a ball and running with it, after all, is more natural than using just your feet.

The other problem with rugby is that it is not a simple game. To start with, there is the shape of the ball – angular and impossible to second guess.

Then there are the laws, thus called rather than rules because they were originally formulated by a bunch of lawyers in one of London’s inns of court. There have always been too many laws, and they keep changing. Just keeping up with the latest requires some deep immersion in the sport, say the authors.

Casual observers do not stand a chance. The rugby law book of 160 pages was whittled down in 2018 to one that was 42% slimmer. The new book, according to the Gunning Fog index, which weighs the number of words per sentence, and the number of long words  to measure the penetrability of the text, can now be understood by a 12-year-old (according to World Rugby) whereas previously it required someone of 16 or older. Some cynics would say not even the refs have grasped it.

At virtually every point of contention in the game, there is a range of decisions and interpretations open to the referee, whose reactions to each constantly shapes the direction of a match. Aylwin points out that at the lineout alone there are 22 technical infringements a referee could blow for. Within that there are six different ways for a player to be offside.

“All of this invests disproportionate significance in the role of the referee,” says Aylwin. “He is elevated from a position of passive arbiter to that of third party. Rugby is not a simple contest between two teams.”

That is the biggest problem of all for the future of the game, if it is to become a purely spectator sport. TV viewers, especially those in Australia with short attention spans and a variety of other rugby-type games on offer, will quickly switch channels if scrums are to be continually reset or there is an avalanche of lineouts.

Each decision changes the course of the narrative, much to the exasperation of those watching, according to their allegiances, which invariably incline a fan to identify other infringements again, imagined or otherwise. “No knife to a fan or coach is quite so sharp as the sound of that whistle, and the arm thrust skyward against their team,” says Aylwin.

For others the game’s complexity might be its appeal. “Some love rugby precisely because it is so complicated; some love it for far simpler qualities, the elemental crunch of collision, the ballet of speed and skill,” writes Aylwin.

And for all its complexities, we have really missed it this winter.





One thought on “Covid has kicked rugby into touch

  1. David Bristow

    Two mirthful back-handers: not even some refs have grasped it (WRT 12 years olds), and Australians with short attention spans. 🙂 I love and hate it, for the rules, so not sure about that. However, one observation – until the 1980s, you could away with just about any infringement short of punching the ref – when one looks back at the old movies of matches from the the “old times” we find the level of violence both staggering and highly amusing, at once. Another point is that since the “new rules” scrums have been significantly cleaned up in terms of front-row technicalities and collapses.
    Yours, a fan


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