Sunday, November 12, 2006

Stuart Barnes wants to kill the game of rugby

Writing in the Sunday Times today, Stuart Barnes, perhaps the most pig-headed and ignorant of rugby commentators, has published his prescription for the death of rugby. The IRB has recently issued strong guidelines to crack down on stamping, and rightly so. One of the blights of the game is that when players are on the wrong side of a ruck, too many players consider it their right to jump in with their feet and give the offending player a good kicking. Not try and get him out of the way, you understanding, but to cause him maximum pain. Such an act, of course, is against the rules of rugby, constituting violent conduct, and as such is punishable by a yellow or red card.

Barnes considers this a "charter for cheats"; that if players aren't allowed to kick their opponents, then people will come in on the opponent's side of a ruck and 'kill the ball' with impunity. What he is essentially saying, however, is that he does not trust the referees of rugby to do their job.

The fact remains that killing the ball is against the rules; it should be blown up for a penalty every time the referee spots it. Moreover, referees are also instructed to look for repeated infringements by the same team, so that if a team, let alone a player, kills the ball three times during a match, the referee is entitled to send an offender to the sin-bin for ten minutes - and do the same for every repeat offence. A team that finds itself playing with men short for significant periods of time will struggle to win matches on a consistent basis. And, ultimately, that is far preferable than turning a blind eye to what amounts to thuggery.

For what Barnes forgets is that with TV cameras probing every angle of an international match, and increasing numbers of club matches too, such acts of thuggery will be broadcast to large numbers of parents who will consequently be highly reluctant to let their children play in such a violent environment. "The stud-torn shirt across the back, the pain of the iodine, was all part of the sport’s badge of honour," writes Barnes. A wonderful advertisement for a sport struggling to maintain numbers, with clubs going under on a regular basis, and with a desperate need for an infusion of youth outside of public schools. (To put this problem in perspective, consider that only 6 schools in the entireity of County Durham now play rugby at under-18 level. Four of these are private schools.) Rugby is a tough game, for sure. But it's a tough enough game without allowing out-and-out violence on top.

Barnes continues, "There were and still are a few thugs who stamp on heads, ankles, knees; areas that were deliberately targeted and a real risk to the health of the illegally located forward. Nobody has ever endorsed vigilante style justice." Unfortunately for him, vigilante style justice is exactly what he is endorsing. For there are more areas than heads, ankles and knees that suffer from a kick. How long before someone damages a kidney through what Barnes might term 'imaginative use of the feet'? And the thugs who will target those areas will feel emboldened by any acceptance of stamping - it will be increasingly difficult to draw a line between the stamp that is legitimate, and the one that 'just happens' to have caught someone's knee. The only way to secure player safety on the field is to clamp down heavily on any instances of thuggery.

While rugby is a sport that is associated with off-the-ball violence, it will struggle to attract the new players who are the lifeblood of the game. The solution to cheats lying on the wrong side of the ruck is to give penalties against them and sin-bin the offenders. Regulating the existing laws effectively is the best means of ensuring quick ball. Sanctioning one form of cheating to stop another form of cheating merely encourages lawlessness and violence.