It’s easy to view Saturday night’s slopfest southern derby Super Rugby semi-final as another gapingly-empty chamber in the no-brainer case for an enclosed stadium in poor-old, elements-ravaged Christchurch.
What next for Canterbury, by the way? What follows earthquakes, fire and floods – a plague of locusts? A Justin Bieber concert?
I digress. On the face of it, Saturday night most certainly strengthened the case that the Canterbury rebuild should include a covered stadium. A good chance of becoming hypothermic shouldn’t really be part of any spectator experience – except perhaps when watching dog-sledding, when it is mandatory.
And for those brave enough to risk their health, the reward should surely be greater than watching 16 heaving beasts mud wrestle while the backs stand around wondering if, having not really particpated, they’ll receive pay cheques.
Or should it? Might we be missing out on something truly unique and kind of awesome if the planet’s increasingly untrustworthy elements are removed from professional rugby?
I pose what should be statement as a question because, somewhat shamefully, I fell asleep shortly after half-time of a match that was supposed to be a thrilling showdown between two evenly-matched arch rivals. With no dog in the race, as such, there simply wasn’t enough entertainment value on offer to stem the droop in my eyelids. There was, however, enough skill and ruthless efficiency in the way the Crusaders dismantled the Highlanders’ pack that it did begin to pose a question: “maybe this is actually really impress…zzzzz?”
And maybe it was? But waking up 40 minutes later to see that the score hadn’t changed hardly reinforced that feeling.
With its baffling, ever-changing laws and interpretations and intense focus on defensive disruption, rugby union is a damn hard game to play beautifully. Occasionally, the stars align and brief periods of exquisite entertainment break out. But for the most part rugby is a monument to trying rather succeeding.
Unquestionably, the weather is the most pervasive factor in reducing rugby to a snore fest. Taking it out of play, as they have done in the Reykjavik of the south that is Dunedin, at least gives the super athletes of rugby’s premier club competition a half decent chance of living up to their billing.
But does that make it the right thing to do?
The aesthetic value of the Crusaders’ ruthless display may have been lacking for all but the most undiluted of purists, but it was unquestionably impressive. And it was also unquestionably ‘proper’ rugby. The sport has always been about mastering the elements, be that by throwing the ball around willy nilly on a gorgeous autumn Saturday arvo of kicking the ever living shite out of it during weather-induced state of emergency? Would it be right to change that?
The answer to that conundrum likely lies in the scoring highlights from Saturday night’s match. If a TMO with access to 57 TV angles can’t even tell if a try is scored every time 16 fat blokes tumble over a try line, then chances are that’s not a compelling spectacle for the masses. Funded as it is in such large part by broadcast revenue, professional rugby is an entertainment product engaged in a never-ending battle for eyeballs. Having those eyeballs losing their battle with the flaps of skin that cover them mid-match is not exactly an ideal scenario.
Yes, taking the elements out of play – and we’ve got to include wind in this – might remove part of rugby’s central core. But when possible, it should be done.
Doubtless, some would argue against this. But would they also argue against modern drainage that prevents playing surfaces from becoming horrendous bogs, balls that no longer become 10 kilogram bars of soap in the wet and try celebrations when the scorer’s team is getting pumped by 40 points?
Okay, I’m with them on that last one. But the point is that it’s self-defeating to fight progress. Rugby needs to keep pace with the rest of the planet, and that means doing away with contests like Saturday night’s whenever possible.
Speaking of progress, now that teams are playing for keeps, the tyranny of the head contact laws introduced into rugby this season are increasingly glaring. Season-defining matches are being heavily influenced by refereeing decisions for which the best explanation seems to be ‘unfortunate’.
On Friday night Hurricanes prop Jeff Toomaga-Allen was sin binned for head contact that was both incidental and unavoidable. Toomaga-Allen is one of the more law abiding types you’ll find in the front rowers’ union. In the course of doing his job in an entirely responsible fashion his body made contact with the head of an opponent who was in the process of falling over. There wasn’t a hint of foul play in his actions, but the law dictated that Toomaga-Allen be sin binned for 10 minutes.
With the level of knowledge around the long-term impact of concussion having increased dramatically in recent years, no-one much wants to complain about incidents like Friday night’s. And fair enough. But nonsense is nonsense. And taking no heed of either intent or the actions of the tackled player in ruling on head contacts is complete nonsense.
Rugby being what it is, it won’t be long until ball carriers deliberately target tacklers’ limbs with their heads.
As well-intended as they are, the new interpretations are doomed to fail anyway, as they only deal with one side of the tackle equation. It is the tackler who receives the head knock just as often as the ball carrier – but there doesn’t seem to be have been a commensurate effort to alleviate that issue. Ditto incidental contact from cleanouts at rucks and mauls.
Concussion is nasty business, but mitigation can’t involve degrading the integrity of the contest. Unfortunately, the game has lost its head.