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Comment & Analysis | Sport

Why I’ve fallen out of love with rugby

Paddy Jackson kicks-n
“Don’t kick!”

ALL of a sudden I’ve given up on Rugby Union. I used to enjoy the Six Nations — Saturday afternoons on a cold February in front of the telly watching 30 tough guys hurtle into one another uncompromisingly. Shouting for Ireland.

Nearly 20 years of life on the Celtic shore delivered me a passion for a foreign band of brothers that I never felt for my own. But that’s another issue, and it doesn’t concern me here and now.

What does are the reasons for my departure. And there are two.

Firstly, because of the way it is scored and the way it is ruled, the outcome of a rugby match fails to reflect the relative merits of the two teams, so the inferior side may accumulate more points and win the game.

More Sport:

There can always be anomalies in the result of any sport — the better man or team loses due to an injury, a player being sent off, a defensive error; something happens that skews the result.

But in rugby this is likely to happen more often because of the manifold and labyrinthine laws and the award of penalties worth three points on conversion every time one of these arcane rules is breached. It’s stop-start, stop-start, as the referee blows up for a foul every minute or so.

When the referee is the individual who has most influence over the outcome of a game (nice job for a prima donna?) there has to be something wrong with that sport.

In football a penalty is awarded only in an area of the pitch (near the goal) where a foul is committed and a genuine goal-scoring opportunity is denied. Not so in rugby.

The team being awarded a penalty (half the time the ref can’t see what’s going on anyway) could be miles from their opponents’ try line. All it needs is a guy who spends his spare time, including Christmas, Easter and his birthday, single-mindedly practising kicking a ball between two posts and thank you very much — three points!

The realisation that the game is going up a blind alley just hit me during this last Six Nations.

Perhaps it’s been brewing for some time and only now surfaced, I don’t know. But two games involving Ireland lifted the fog from my eyes.

Against England neither side was good enough to breach the other’s defence and score a try, although I think Ireland showed a little more ambition in that regard. But they lost because England kicked more penalties. Against Scotland, despite their fellow Celts only scoring points from penalties, and Ireland at least scoring a try, they were defeated by an accurate boot capitalising on daft rules, rather than a better team.

These examples are given purely for illustration and are not meant to excuse Ireland’s poor results during this campaign. They should and could have played better.

But where is the incentive to attack if the game can be won on negative tactics — tactics encouraged by the rules of the game? This is not sport. Sport is about the application of skill and speed with victory going to the better of the two and no shame on the vanquished who strives but comes up short.

So, if anyone in the rugby fraternity is listening, here are some suggestions: Please, simplify your game. Fewer and clearer rules would be a start, allowing the game to flow more. Kick out the practice of awarding three points for a penalty anywhere further than 10 metres from the try line. Give one or two points for a converted penalty within that zone. Elsewhere give a scrum to the side infringed against.

My second grouse, and in truth it is not a recent concern as it has been exercising me for a few years, is the mindless kicking of Garryowens, or up-and-unders.

Can someone please take all those rugby players who persist in launching these most speculative of kicks aside and explain to them that what they are doing the majority of the time is simply giving possession to the other side. In what other sport does one competitor consistently hand an advantage to his opponent, as if he is feeling sorry for him?

“Here you are old chap, you have a go now.”

“Thanks old man, can I return the favour?”

All sports have participants with varying degrees of intelligence and rugby is no exception. On the whole they seem smart and pleasant young fellows, but something clearly happens to some of them when they have the ball. They lower their heads and with a rush of blood that reminds me of Lord Cardigan’s exciting but ultimately doomed charge at Balaclava, boot the ball heroically, though inevitably, to the other side.
What is the point of that, other than to drive me mad?
“Don’t kick, don’t kick,” I scream at the screen. “Hold onto the ball, recycle it, keep possession!”

But I know it’s futile. I’ve already seen that maniac body language in the ball carrier and I know he’s going to kick.  It’s death or glory, all over again… and yes, it’s usually death.

Of course tactical kicking, like for territory, or as a way of breaching the opposing defence — a ball over the top or a grubber kick along the ground — for your backs to run onto can be rewarding and are excluded from these remarks.

There’s a place for kicking and a place for penalties, but the game of rugby has to think about moderating them both before it loses a lot more spectators than just myself, who has had enough.
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