Has rugby gone soft?

Sanctions for dangerous play are getting more headlines than ever before. Leicester lock Will Spencer was red-carded for this head-high hit on Wasps hooker Tommy Taylor (1:09), while All Blacks skipper Kieran Read copped some flak after an epic clash against the Springboks for a no-arms clean on Francois Louw.

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The AOR team weigh in on whether rugby has gone soft.

Tank Lanning – NO, it’s gone safe!
Take a tackle from Duane Vermeulen and then tell me the game has gone soft!

Traditional rugby schools used to soothing a wailing little Johnny after leaving him out of the G side are now battling to put out a competitive B side.

Why? Because little Johnny’s mommy has seen those high tackles, no-arms clean outs at the breakdown, and even those dastardly scrums! And she wants no part in this barbarism. Hence my lightie’s school cutting the rugby season short in order to offer a month of soccer!

Yes, soccer!

The game has changed enormously, though. Players are bigger, stronger, faster and fitter. Mad Max has nothing on the collisions now seen on a rugby field.

The new laws looking after player safety are in response to the sport becoming progressively more dangerous, yet are believed by the “Gone Soft” brigade to be “Killing rugby”. Will it take the death of a player for someone to realise this?

The directive to severely punish high tackles came after extensive research showed that they led to a huge increase in head injuries – for both the tackler and the tackled player.

The “Crouch, Bind, Set” scrum call was brought in given the compressed vertebrae injuries that were occurring as two, 1000kg packs came together in an uncontrolled engage.

What we do need to sort out, though, is this punishing the outcome instead of the action. So it’s only a punch if it lands? Or it’s only a dangerous tackle if the player lands on his neck? Horse manure! Punish the intended action, not the outcome!

Bottom line is that we either bemoan the game’s so-called “softness” as the sport continues down a path forged by the Unicorn, or embrace initiatives that make it a safer sport to play.

Zelim Nel – YES
I’m not saying rugby is for softies, yet. But that’s the end goal for social activists who can’t cope with the celebration of red-blooded bravado.

If the game one day sinks to the point where the ball is replaced by a teddy bear and whining “when is it my turn?” signals a change in possession, that devolution will be traced back to the day rugby started compromising to avoid the ghosts of litigation and the shadow of parents pulling their boys out of rugby.

The snowflakes are happy to play the long game, winning the little battles on ‘nipple-line tackles’ to set the precedents required to eventually clinch the war. It’s a slippery slope.

Protecting players, especially kids, should be a priority. But, as more than one sport is discovering, tinkering with the contest is a see-saw exercise that may slightly reduce the risk of one injury while radically increasing the risk of another.

Who mandated the Safety Police to decide that, for argument’s sake, a significant increase in career-ending knee injuries is worth a slight reduction in concussions?

Rugby is indeed more dangerous than playing with a Rubik’s cube, but what would the benefit-cost ratio be to society if we protected 10% of the population from head trauma by confining everyone to life in a plastic bubble?

Risk is a numbers game. Motorists die on our roads every day and yet there’s no global campaign to reduce national speed limits to 10kmph. And while professional sport is optional, transport is not.

As usual, rugby has been its worst enemy on this issue. The game has the tools to protect players, it just needs to grow a backbone and enforce the laws that, for example, require a player to bind on a teammate/opponent when joining a ruck.

Rugby is played by some of the toughest blokes on the planet. Let’s keep it that way.

You’ve read what they think, now drop a comment to let us know where you stand in The Big Debate!

- Big Debate

Let's chat

  • Wesley

    I lean towards Tank’s argument, but snippets of Zelim’s also touch on a few fair points.

    “Social activists” should not have an opinion of what rules are to be made and what we should look out for. The social media outcry of danger within a sport they most likely do not have interest or knowledge about should not be the driving force of these decisions. Experts (doctors, trauma specialists and the like) are to weigh in, and if research points to certain improvements we could make, so be it, but still be weighted in terms of risks in changing the game to an unrecognizable state. Rugby is tough, if your mother doesn’t like it, don’t play it. But we should educate those parents in those risks and what rugby is doing to lessen them. But also, brushing off a cheap shot like Read has done on Flo or the Taylor incident, and then saying rugby is going soft, is cynical and stupid. They are inherently dangerous, outside the laws of rugby, and should be punished accordingly. If we stay within the laws, you will most likely be safe. Accidents happen yes and people get hurt even within the laws, but most of these incidents in the spotlight are because of fowl play the guilty player or coaches of that player, and even the administrators (refs included) do not want to own up to.

  • Barry Smith

    There’s a guy in Cape Town hospital this morning from Goodwood club declared brain dead after a dangerous tackle over the weekend. The timing of the article perhaps a little unfortunate!

    • Tank Lanning Tank Lanning

      Or perhaps the perfect time to raise the subject Barry? How terribly sad that this has happened, though. My thoughts go out to the player, his family and team mates.

    • Wesley

      Very unfortunate, strength to his family in this difficult time.

      The reports indicates “dangerous tackle”. This is exactly what these “soft” rules are there trying to stamp out. Not fair hard rugby. Dangerous rugby. Macho bravado is bound to get someone killed, but should also be able to determine the difference between “social activist whining” and good common sense.

  • Liam

    Referee’s are being harsh – that was marginal etc are things I often hear. A ref can only act after the fact and does not need to answer for anything except being strict in applying the laws and as Tank says you must penalize the action not the result … sometimes a legal tackle is hard Bismarck’s yellow card for a tackle on Dan Carter a notable example – and if you throw a punch and it does not land is irrelevant and should be dealt with exactly the same way as if it had landed. Coaches & Players need to start taking responsibility for their own actions and then it will allow the referee to blow rugby issues instead of dealing with discipline and foul play … refs don’t punch stomp or high tackle so are only brought into play after the fact

  • Nick

    A big issue imo.
    In countries like France; Australia; NZ; Aus and others where they have excellent ‘free’ health care, In England you will see Helicopters arrive within half an hour to tend to serious injuries in school games for eg. The physical safety of kids and everybody else is of paramount importance. Compare that to what South Africans can expect outside of the small fortunate bubbles of affluence. If anything it shows how determined and interested in the game we are.

    In SA the lack of this universal provision in SA is a glaring weakness. We may have huge numbers of players, but poorer players who cannot afford good medical insurance are at a big disadvantage.
    What parent of limited financial means and no top grade medical aid would let or encourage their kids go and smash themselves to bits on a dusty field. What adult would for that matter?

    With this in mind I would have to say I find Zelim’s point of view worthless and not worthy of comment.

  • John Comyn

    I’m leaning towards Zelim. Players are milking the laws. Taking a player out when off his feet is one where we are seeing more and more 50/50 calls. Another is players ducking under the defenders arms and getting a high tackle call. We are now seeing refs giving a warning or yellow for a high tackle. It either is or it isn’t a high tackle! The tip tackle is also dodgy at times. All of these are red card offences. Serious neck injuries are going to happen regardless of the changes. Next thing we will have touch rugby replacing the real thing.

  • Herman Schroder?

    Bring on those ‘grid iron’ outfits I say. Only problem is Johnny won’t be able to see his prima donna haircut on the big screen. Cheers.

    • Greg Shark

      herman, now that was funny….

    • SweetAz

      Surely you meant Elton????

      • Herman Schroder?

        Elton doesn’t have to look his hairdo is permanently in place, lol. Cheers.

    • Tank Lanning Tank Lanning

      Giggled heartily Herman :)

    • Barry Smith

      You surely neanderthal Elton? Lol.

      • SweetAz

        Autocorrect turned on??

        • Barry Smith

          Yes, annoying some times! Thanks for the help!

  • Vossie

    Going with Tank here, players safety must be considered at all times. People always talk about how it was in the old days of rugby and a free for all do whatever you must mindset was at the core of brutal rugby, more so between the Boks and AB’s. It was good to watch but things have changed. The biggest problem with the safety laws is the refereeing, it doesn’t seem clear and the level of inconsistency can be mind boggling at times. When going for the hit it should be on the players minds that if this goes south ill be accountable and probably cop a yellow or even a red.

    • Tank Lanning Tank Lanning

      100% Vossie. In fact refereeing inconsistencies is perhaps the biggest scourge in the game

      • SweetAz

        yep,–why is there no siting of that Kieran Read incident? Guaranteed if it was Etsebeth or Bakkies Botha we would never hear the end of it.

        • Vossie

          The same reason refs let the AB’s get away with murder, the kiwis are God’s so how can you pull a yellow or a red against them, even the so called best ref in the world didn’t want to do it!

  • Chris Mouton

    I agree with Tank here, once again. Rugby is becoming safer, not softer. Just look at this weekend’s game between the All Blacks and Springboks. There was nothing soft about that, even though the majority of tackles were legal. These rules are made to protect the players. Flo could’ve gotten seriously hurt! There’s no way to train yourself to be able to take a shoulder charge like that. Even American football is now under scrutiny for head injuries. Read should’ve been red carded. I’m appalled that the match officials missed that.

    Is it really that much to ask to keep your tackles below the shoulder line and to use your arms in the clean-outs and tackles? Hell man, these rules were in place when I played high school rugby a few decades ago. It just makes sense. What I would propose though is that the red card punishment changes. Evict the offending player from the game and then allow a replacement to play after 10 minutes. This way the offending player gets sent off, and can even be cited afterwards, and the competition stays alive as it’s 15 v 15. Think of what a difference it would’ve made for the matches between All Blacks and B&I Lions or Lions vs Crusaders?

    • Herman Schroder?

      Agreed. Someone suggested that the review of the incident should be done straight away while the player is immediately replaced on the field. This could be done by a small review panel while the player waits for the verdict which should be made within ten minutes. If the player is cleared he goes back on, if not he is sanctioned accordingly and with immediate effect. Maybe players will then think twice before committing palpably dangerous play. Cheers.

    • Vossie

      That’s spot on Chris!

  • Greg Shark

    Soft? Hard? Dangerous? What does the average journo actually know about the game of rugby….headlines are click bait. The game’s not gone soft, it just needs to be properly and fairly regulated on field….

    “The game has the tools to protect players, it just needs to grow a backbone and enforce the laws that, for example, require a player to bind on a teammate/opponent when joining a ruck.” – unfortunately the ‘tools’ very often do not apply the regulatory rules as they replace that with their ‘subjective wisdom’…..

    I wonder too if in the sprint to make the game ‘flow’ with fewer breakdowns the administrators have relaxed the strict application of the laws and created a faster moving game BUT with greater propensity for ref to miss the action and greater danger?

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