Rugby has become ugly and almost unwatchable and the reason is because what is meant to be a free-flowing spectacle is being choked by chronic off-sides.
This was my contention during a talk to a room full of dyed-in-the-wool rugby men at Villager rugby club.
I had expected some grumblings of disagreement at such a cutting criticism of the game that underpinned the camaraderie in the room but instead there was absolute agreement.
In the wind-up, when tables are pulled together and chairs moved into a circle for multiple ABFs, I was amazed at how many stalwarts confessed they no longer went to matches or even watched games on television.
The beloved game, we agreed, is unattractive, boring, predictable and monotonous. In fact, it is off-sides.
The advent of concepts such as “rush defence” and “line speed”, aimed at cutting down the space available to the attacking side, has been in play for some years but endemic off-sides has become a scourge which World Rugby seems disinclined to even acknowledge, never mind take steps to rectify.
England’s recent victory over Ireland in Dublin was hailed as a “classic” or “epic” Test match for its passion and heroic physicality. As an example of what rugby is meant to be, it was a fiasco as both teams spent so much time off-sides that there was no room to play. In South Africa we have a word for it – “koppestamp.”
If watching referees dominate the game, players constantly smash into each other from melee to melee and endless box-kicks is your bag, you’re welcome to it, but the game we’re seeing these days does not deserve to be called rugby.
What makes this more unacceptable, just like the rules governing the ruck, is that World Rugby’s law book still talks of the “principle” being that “the game is played only by players who are onside” (Law 10) and that (Law 15) “the offside line runs through the hindmost point of the hindmost player of either team.”
With the accent (in coaching) having switched from how to attack to how to stop attack, defending teams line up well ahead of the hindmost foot and invariably start the rush early – space to attack is thus quickly shut down with outside backs often reaching the player they are marking before the ball gets to him.
Ahead of last year’s Test between the Springboks and Scotland, the home team’s reserve hooker Fraser Brown unintentionally summed up the current situation.
“They’ll try and cheat and we’ll try and cheat and whoever comes out on top will probably win,” Brown told The Scotsman. There you have it. Illegality, cheating, rules.
Something has to be done and perhaps the cure might be not to blow the hindmost foot law correctly but to amend it.
My suggestion would be to introduce a one metre gap behind the hindmost foot that has to be maintained. This should stop defenders from creeping ahead of the last foot as it should be easy for assistant referees (touch judges) to take up a position to signal, and call transgressions, where that gap should be.
The effective space created could be as much as three metres and encourage teams to run the ball rather than the interminable morass of crash-balling which is now the norm. Either that or we might as well play Rugby League.