Rugby was never designed to be a sport defined by slide rule pedantry.Photo: Andrew Milligan/PA
Three away wins on the opening weekend of the Six Nations, two home wins in round two. And yet, as a result, the 2024 tournament already has a consistent theme. Five teams struggling for a sustained rhythm and Ireland fizzing on another level entirely, showing the rest of the field how it could and should be do.
Even the wonderful young Irish singer cut above compared to the two games on Saturday, both of which were moderate in terms of overall quality. Scotland should have put away a sluggish – again – France, and England couldn’t have complained too loudly if Wales hung on at Twickenham. The lingering memory will be the subtlety of the final edges rather than the superb quality of the play.
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More than ever, this doesn’t feel completely coincidental. Because rugby union has come to grips with exactly what kind of spectacle it wants to be. It was never meant to be a sport defined by slide-rule pedantry. All too often, unfortunately, that is now his default setting as highlighted even more at the weekend by the disappointing end to the game at Murrayfield.
No wonder Gregor Townsend was so unhappy afterwards. It was encouraging and worrying to listen to the referee, Nic Berry, when he finally spoke about a decision that was clearly correct in the name of the faulty protocol. If it’s good news for France – chapeau to the quick colleague who coined the nickname Nic Beret – the associated logic was exactly what rugby didn’t need as it battles to attract new audiences.
Can you imagine something like that happening in the Super Bowl? For TV replays of a late game-winning touchdown to be seen by everyone at home and on the stadium’s big screen except for the officials to rule it out because the critical film was only about 95% rather than 100% clear? When the referee’s call used to be sacred; now too many cooks are drooling over an excessive amount of slo-mo evidence. It leaves rugby marooned in no man’s land where, among other disadvantages, eleven high-resolution cameras are still able to tell whether or not a crucial try is scored.
A hair’s breadth call in any era? Perhaps, but the time has come to take a step back and reflect on the extent to which technology is tying the sport to overly complicated knots. If the eye in the sky can’t be definitive, why be so subtle about it? What happened to the great balance of probability, rather than “conclusive evidence”? And how much more decisive do you need than a ball sliding clear of the Frenchman’s leg and onto the grass? If it looks like a pig and oinks like a pig it usually is a pig. Instead, trying to meet a very high standard of proof, the officers gave him a pig’s ear.
Similar confusion reigns in other areas of the game. Once again we saw a big green forward, in this case England’s Ollie Chessum, sent to the bin for a tackle that didn’t appear to be the worst of crimes, watched in real time considering his moderate strength . Slowed down and frozen at the point of impact head, however, looked rather worse. Which meant he went to the bunker to review it again. Everyone wants a safer game and a reduction in high tackles but common sense must remain part of the equation.
Then there was Mason Grady’s yellow card for a “deliberate knock on” at a crucial late stage with Wales still ahead. The Wales representative had no chance to check his reflexive movement towards the ball after Henry Slade, at the last minute, opted to let it slide across his chest. It doesn’t matter: rugby has become so tolerant and so rigidly dictatorial that the referee, James Doleman, as soon as the slo-mo replays found finger contact, had to affect his pocket.
Put it all together and what do you have? Players walking an eternal trope, referees in an almost impossible position, games decided by fractions almost insurmountable by anyone at home on the couch let alone 100 meters away in a crowded stadium. It only breeds suspicion and frustration and, more and more, accusations of inconsistency. After Scotland’s near miss, should every effort now be micro-analyzed? Was Elliot Daly’s pass for Fraser Dingwall’s crucial try, for example, floating on? Should George Ford’s tiny correction on his feet before kicking the goal really mark the start of his right run? Can modern rugby see the wood for the trees?
And where does it stop? Why, a visitor from Mars might ask, is everyone who drives forward head-on from a succession of human battering rams near the try line seen as excellent for everyone’s health when a seat belt is relatively innocuous? ? Why is scrum reset allowed to take up so much critical time? Why does the game feel more like a vehicle where two teams of litigious plaintiffs could argue about it indefinitely?
It is slowly driving many people mad and the Six Nations are in danger of being poorer as a result. As Ronan O’Gara posted on social media on Saturday: “Is there any other sport where the officials have so much influence? Too many rules/laws.. too complicated.’ O’Gara loves his rugby as much as anyone. He is immersed in minutiae more than most. When someone of his knowledge, experience and position believes that a rethink is needed, the authorities would be wise to listen.