Crossing Codes

Well, it was rugby last time and it’ll be rugby this time next week, so I might as well buck the trend and start talking a little more about rugby in preparation for the upcoming Lions tour (anyone who wants to hear my views regarding Christian Wade/Shane Williams’ callup will have to make themselves heard over the sound of me clapping with glee at the prospect of a bit of magic from either). However, today I will not be confining myself solely to my preferred variant of rugby union, but will instead be analysing its relationship to the other code; rugby league.

To tell the story of rugby league, we must travel back to 1895, just 22 years after the official founding of the game of rugby football. As befits a sport named after and originating from a public school, rugby at the time was very much a rich man’s game, particularly in the south of Britain, and such people could afford to live the amateur dream; where the game was not influenced by such crass things as money, but by honour and other such proud words. Indeed, as I explained last time, this attitude of die-hard defence of amateurism would persist in the union game for nearly the next century, and as late as 1995, as the game lay on the very verge of going professional, Will Carling was stripped of the England captaincy for (quite accurately) referring to the board of the RFU as ’57 old farts’.

However, way back in the late 19th century the game was just starting to take off in the north of England as well, where ex-public schoolboys were rather thin on the ground. This was working-class country, and rugby here was a working class game; for these men, amateurism was a hard task, and every game they played on a Saturday was another three hours where they weren’t earning much-needed cash. As such, a group of northern clubs proposed to the RFU that, with the reasonable income generated from the spectators at matches, players could be ‘recompensed for loss of time’; a reasonable request, one might assume. However, the old farts took the suggestion badly, not only rejecting it out of hand  but issuing a dictum that banned teams from playing at grounds where an entrance fee was charged for spectators. This, to put it mildly, did not go down well with the northern clubs, and on the 29th of August that year, 22 clubs formed the Northern Union; an entirely separate officiating organisation. Over 200 clubs would join the Northern Union within the next decade and a half (some argue this did the union code the world of good, stripping England of much of its skilled player base and making the international playing field more even), and gradually they also began fiddling with the laws, fitting them to their liking. The biggest changes came in 1906, when the number of men per team was reduced from 15 to 13 (dropping the flankers to give the attacking side more room; an idea being voiced by some in the union code at the moment too), and when the ruck was abolished, being replaced instead with rugby league’s characteristic ‘writhe around on the floor until the ref shouts “move”‘.

This revolutionised league’s playing structure, doing away with the dull scrummaging and mauling that dominated union at the time in favour of a faster, more flowing game. Gone was the suffering of the union winger, doomed to forever hang around getting cold and hoping for a pass or two; backs became the focus of the league game, as handling skills became prioritised over strength and wingers were encouraged to go looking for the ball, to make themselves useful. Games became far higher-scoring than in union (where 3-0 wins were not uncommon at the time), and this was only enhanced when league became a summer game, played on hard, fast grounds rather than getting bogged down in the mud and rain. Add to that the fact that league players could get paid to play, and it’s not surprising that many union players chose to switch codes (much to the chagrin of their respective unions, who would frequently ban them from ever playing the union code again). All in all, for much of the 20th century, rugby league could easily argue to be on top of its union cousin.

However, when union (finally, amidst much chaos and complaining) turned professional in 1995, the tide began to turn. In spite of everything, union had, particularly in the latter half of the century, maintained a bigger player and supporter base than league, and much of it in the affluent south; this meant that it was able to cash in on professionalism to an extent that league couldn’t match, and the union authorities had finally made concessions on the laws that were conducive to a far more spectator-friendly game. The tide began to turn. Union got richer (especially when businessmen like Francis Baron started to weigh in) and took back a few stars who had gone over to league. Then, it started poaching a few league stars of its own; former rugby league internationals like Lote Tuqiri, Jason Robinson & Andy Farrell began making their considerable presence felt as union started to wave around fat payslips and an approach to professionalism that has begun to take over from league in terms of intensity. Just recently, Sonny Bill Williams (who has just returned to league after a few years in an All Blacks shirt) has said that the approach that became second nature to him in union has marked him out in terms of professionalism in a league environment. As evidenced in this article, winner of the ‘most needlessly provocative title in a sporting article’ award.

So, rugby league then; a game conceived in rebellion to the arrogance of the wealthy southerners, it is in many ways the perfect embodiment of England’s north-south divide. Thankfully, said divide has (to me at least) receded somewhat in recent years, and so has some of the animosity between the two codes. This has lead some to propose a somewhat radical new idea; that the two codes combine, returning union to a single sport united by the best of both worlds. Will it happen in the forseeable future? Of course not; league is a proud game well capable of standing on its own two feet, and is blessed with some of the most passionate fans in sport, who I don’t think would take kindly to the identity of their sport fading away. Not only that, but trying to create a game appreciated by both parties would be a messy old business, even if the conception of the IRB has made union slightly more accepting than if negotiations were headed by unions quite as… vociferous as the RFU. Nonetheless, the debate does highlight an important issue; both codes have an awful lot to learn from one another, and union in particular has utilised the skills of former league talents both on the field and in coaching. With both games in serious trouble in places, particularly in today’s economic climate, not making use of such cooperation could prove very costly indeed.

The Scrum Problem

My apologies from deviating back to a personal favourite- I try too keep rugby out of these posts on the grounds that, in real life, it tends to make things kind of exclusive for people who aren’t into it, but I thought that I might be allowed one small deviation from this guideline. Today, I wish to talk about probably the single most contentious issue in the game today, one that divides, confuses and angers just about everyone involved in it: the scrum.

The scrum has always been a historic feature of the game of rugby- perhaps a historic callback to the old ‘scrums’ of viciously fighting players that formed the origins of the game of football, in the context of rugby it has proved contentious since the very first international ever played. England and Scotland were playing one another and, at the time, both played under different rules, so it was agreed that they would play under English rules for the first half and Scottish ones in the second. The game was around an hour old, tied at 0-0 (yeah it was a bit rubbish in those days), when the Scots won a scrum on the English five metre line. Rather than feed the ball into the scrum, the Scots instead began to push. The unsuspecting English forwards were caught off guard and forced back over their own line, whereupon the Scottish scrum-half grounded the ball. Whilst totally illegal under English rules, and thus generating a barrage of complaints, the Scots had one fair and square, starting off a bitter rivalry against ‘the Auld Enemy’ that continues to this day.

The scrum has developed a lot since those days (everyone now plays under the same rules for one thing), but perhaps the most important development for the modern game came in the 1990’s, specifically within the New Zealand team at the time. The All Blacks were a talented side, but their major disadvantage came up front, for whilst their front row players were skilled, Sean Fitzpatrick and company were not the biggest or heaviest front row around. Whilst not a disadvantage in open play, at scrum time it was feared that they would crumble under their opponent’s superior weight, so they had to find a way round that. In the end, they resorted to a bit of trickery. The structure adopted at scrum time by most sides of the age was to come together gently, get settled, then let the scrum half put the ball in and start to push, twist, and cheat in all the million ways discovered by front rowers over the years. However, what the Kiwis decided to do was hit the engagement hard, smashing their opponents back to get a good body position early. Then, the scrum half would feed the ball in almost immediately, allowing them to start pushing straight away and keep their opponents on the back foot, thus not allowing them time to get themselves settled and start to push back. It worked like a charm, aside from one small drawback. Everyone else started to copy them.

Even with trained wrestlers, there is only so much damage that sixteen men can do to one another when simply trying to push one another back. However, when not much below a tonne of meat slams as hard as it can into another tonne smashing back the other way, the forces involved in the impact is truly huge, and suddenly the human spine doesn’t seem all that strong. Not only that, but the slightest misalignment of the impact, and that amount of force means there is simply no way for it to all settle down nicely. Combine this fact with the immense muscle building and weight gain programs now demanded by the modern, professional game, and the attention to detail of modern coaches to get that extra edge in the impact, and we reach the inescapable and chaotic conclusion that is the modern scrum. In the last world cup in 2011, in matches between top-tier countries 50 scrums out of every 100 collapsed, and there were 31 resets and 41 free-kicks or penalties per 100. The stats were virtually the same during this year’s Six Nations, in which nearly half of all scrums resulted in the ball not coming back and creating one match (Ireland v Scotland) that spent over a quarter of its playing time spent scrummaging, resetting or collapsing.

This is despite the fact that the face of the game has changed very much against the set piece in the modern era. In the early 1970’s, analysis suggests that the average number of set-pieces (scrums and lineouts) in a match was nearly triple its current value (mid-thirties), whilst the number of rucks/mauls has gone up sixfold since then. Even since the game first turned pro in the mid-nineties, the number of set pieces has dropped by a third and the number of successful breakdowns tripled. The amount of time the ball spends in play has also risen hugely, and some are even arguing that the scrum as we know it is under threat. Indeed, in last year’s Six Nations the scrum was only the deciding factor in one game (England v Ireland), and as Paul Wallace astutely pointed out at the time that Ireland getting pushed about for the entire match was their reward for playing by the rules and not sending a front rower off ‘injured’.

Then there are the myriad of various intrigues and techniques that have lead to the scrum becoming the unstable affair it is today. Many argue that modern skintight shirts don’t allow players to grip properly, forcing them to either slip or grab hold of easier and possibly illegal positions that make the scrum decidedly wobbly. Others blame foot positioning, arguing that the modern way of setting up one’s feet, where the hooker demands the majority of space, forces the backs of his props to angle inwards and making the whole business more dangerous and less stable. Some blame poor refereeing for letting scrummagers get away with things that are now becoming dangerous, destabilising habits among front rowers, whilst others may counter this by considering the myriad of confusing signals a referee has to try and keep track off at scrum time- two offside lines, straightness of feed, hooker’s feet up early, incorrect back row binding, illegal front row binding, whether his line judge is signalling him and whether anyone’s just broken their neck. This is clearly a mighty confusing situation, and one I’d love to be able to start suggesting solutions for- but I think I’ll leave that until Saturday…