Complex laws pushing rugby to the brink of football’s world

John Inverdale

CAN the culture of a sport change? The fallout from rugby union’s grand slam decider in Cardiff goes far deeper than why England fell apart. The aftermath has focused on the players’ and coaches’ relationship with the referee, and whether the game needs to accept that, in the professional era, officials could and should be challenged during a match and afterwards by all those with a vested interest in its outcome. The referee is right even when he’s wrong. That’s how we have all been brought up to play and watch the game. But is the tide turning?

So while you ponder that, consider this. Last Wednesday at the British Universities and Colleges Sport championships at Leeds Metropolitan University, the women of Durham University contested both the hockey and football titles. In a frantic hockey final against Birmingham University, featuring several international players and eventually won by Durham in dramatic fashion 2-1, the pace of the game was such and respect for the officials so total, that even so much as a raised eyebrow towards a decision threatened a spell in the sin-bin. It was raucous on the sidelines, but on the pitch it was church mouse territory, bar the occasional exhortation from one player to another.

Barely an hour later, in the football final against Cardiff Met, it was like moving from a classical music concert to a Motorhead gig. Shouting, screaming, appealing for throw-ins, cursing the referee for giving or not giving free-kicks. An equally dramatic match, which Durham lost 3-2 to a brilliant piledriving free-kick in extra time, but a totally different experience for both players and spectators. Same girls, same university, same course probably, and why the contrast? Simple. Totally distinct sporting cultures, no matter what level you’re playing at.

That is why rugby union currently finds itself in such a dilemma. Still just in the hockey camp, but teetering on the precipice of entering football’s world, the complexity of the game’s laws, especially at the breakdown and scrum, are frustrating players and coaches to breaking point.

And if the sport doesn’t want to cross such a fundamental rubicon, the International Rugby Board needs to address those issues immediately, because if they don’t, the culture of the game will change whether they like it or not.