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.

Where do we come from?

In the sport of rugby at the moment (don’t worry, I won’t stay on this topic for too long I promise), there is rather a large debate going on- one that has been echoing around the game for at least a decade now, but that seems to be coming ever closer to the fore. This is the issue of player nationality, namely the modern trend for foreign players to start playing for sides other than those of their birth. The IRB’s rules currently state that one is eligible to play for a country having either lived there for the past three years or if you, either of your parents or any of your grandparents were born there (and so long as you haven’t played for another international side). This state of affairs that has allowed a myriad of foreigners, mainly South Africans (Mouritz Botha, Matt Stevens, Brad Barritt) and New Zealanders (Dylan Hartley, Thomas Waldrom, Riki Flutey), as well as a player all of whose family have played for Samoa (Manu Tuilagi), to play for England in recent years. In fact, Scotland recently played host to an almost comic state of affairs as both the SRU and the media counted down the days until electric Dutch wing Tim Visser, long hailed as the solution to the Scots’ try scoring problems, was eligible to play for Scotland on residency grounds.

These rules were put in place after the ‘Grannygate’ scandal during the early noughties. Kiwi coach Graham Henry, hailed as ‘The Great Redeemer’ by Welsh fans after turning their national side around and leading them to eleven successive victories, had ‘found’ a couple of New Zealanders (Shane Howarth and Brett Sinkinson) with Welsh grandparents to help bolster his side. However, it wasn’t long before a bit of investigative journalism found out that there was no Welsh connection whatsoever, and the whole thing had been a fabrication by Henry and his team. Both players were stopped playing for Wales, and amidst the furore the IRB brought in their new rules.  Sinkinson later qualified on residency and won six further caps for the Welsh. Howarth, having previously played for New Zealand, never played international rugby again.

It might seem odd, then, that this issue is still considered a scandal, despite the IRB having supposedly ‘sorted it out’. But it remains a hugely contentious issue, dividing those who think that Mouritz Botha’s thick South African accent should not be allowed in a white shirt and those who point out that he apparently considers himself English and has as much a right as anyone to compete for the shirt. This is not just an issue in rugby either- during the Olympics, there was a decent amount of criticism for the presence of ‘plastic Brits’ in the Great Britain squad (many of them sporting strong American accents), something that has been present since the days of hastily anglicised South African Zola Budd. In some ways athletics is even more dodgy, as athletes are permitted to change the country they represent (take Bernard Lagat, who originally represented his native Kenya before switching to the USA).

The problem is that nationality is not a simple black & white dividing line, especially in today’s multicultural, well-travelled world. Many people across the globe now hold a dual nationality and a pair of legal passports, and it would be churlish to suggest that they ‘belong’ any more to one country than another. Take Mo Farah, for example, one of Britain’s heroes after the games, and a British citizen- despite being born in, and having all his family come from, Somaliland (technically speaking this is an independent, semi-autonomous state, but is internationally only recognised as part of Somalia). And just as we Britons exalt the performance of ‘our man’, in his home country the locals are equally ecstatic about the performance of a man they consider Somali, whatever country’s colours he runs in.

The thing is, Mo Farah, to the British public at least, seems British. We are all used to our modern, multicultural society, especially in London, so his ethnic origin barely registers as ‘foreign’ any more, and he has developed a strong English accent since he first moved here aged 9. On the other hand, both of Shana Cox’s parents were born in Britain, but was raised in Long Island and has a notable American accent, leading many to dub her a ‘plastic Brit’ after she lead off the 4 x 400m women’s relay team for Great Britain. In fact, you would be surprised how important accent is to our perception of someone’s nationality, as it is the most obvious indicator of where a person’s development as a speaker and a person occurred.

A simultaneously both interesting and quite sad demonstration of this involves a pair of Scottish rappers I saw in the paper a few years ago (and whose names I have forgotten). When they first auditioned as rappers, they did so in their normal Scots accents- and were soundly laughed out of the water. Seriously, their interviewers could barely keep a straight face as they rejected them out of hand purely based on the sound of their voice. Their solution? To adopt American accents, not just for their music but for their entire life. They rapped in American, spoke in American, swore, drank, partied & had sex all in these fake accents. People they met often used to be amazed by the perfect Scottish accents these all-american music stars were able to impersonate. And it worked, allowing them to break onto the music scene and pursue their dreams as musicians, although it exacted quite a cost. At home in Scotland, one of them asked someone at the train station about the timetable. Initially unable to understand the slight hint of distaste he could hear in their homely Scots lilt, it was about a minute before he realised he had asked the question entirely in his fake accent.

(Interestingly, Scottish music stars The Proclaimers, who the rappers were unfavourably compared to in their initial interview, were once asked about the use of their home accents in their music as opposed to the more traditional American of the music industry, and were so annoyed at the assumption that they ‘should’ be singing in an accent that wasn’t theirs that they even made a song (‘Flatten all the Vowels’) about the incident.)

This story highlights perhaps the key issue when considering the debate of nationality- that what we perceive as where someone’s from will often not tell us the whole story. It is not as simple as ‘oh so-and-so is clearly an American, why are they running for Britain?’, because what someone ‘clearly is’ and what they actually are can often be very different. At the very first football international, England v Scotland, most of the Scottish team were selected on the basis of having Scottish-sounding names. We can’t just be judging people on what first meets the eye.

Scrum Solutions

First up- sorry I suddenly disappeared over last week. I was away, and although I’d planned to tell WordPress to publish a few for me (I have a backlog now and everything), I was unfortunately away from my computer on Saturday and could not do so. Sorry. Today I would like to follow on from last Wednesday’s post dealing with the problems faced in the modern rugby scrum, to discuss a few solutions that have been suggested for dealing with the issue, and even throw in a couple of ideas of my own. But first, I’d like to offer my thoughts to another topic that has sprung up amid the chaos of scrummaging discussions (mainly by rugby league fans): the place, value and even existence of the scrum.

As the modern game has got faster and more free-flowing, the key focus of the game of rugby union has shifted. Where once entire game plans were built around the scrum and (especially) lineout, nowadays the battle of the breakdown is the vital one, as is so ably demonstrated by the world’s current openside flanker population. Thus, the scrum is becoming less and less important as a tactical tool, and the extremists may argue that it is no more than a way to restart play. This is the exact situation that has been wholeheartedly embraced by rugby league, where lineouts are non-existent and scrums are an uncontested way of restarting play after a minor infringement. To some there is, therefore, something of a crossroads: do we as a game follow the league path of speed and fluidity at the expense of structure, or stick to our guns and keep the scrum (and set piece generally) as a core tenet of our game?

There is no denying that our modern play style, centred around fast rucks and ball-in-hand play, is certainly faster and more entertaining than its slow, sluggish predecessor, if only for the fans watching it, and has certainly helped transform rugby union into the fun, flowing spectators game we know and love today. However having said that, if we just wanted to watch players run with the ball and nothing else of any interest to happen, then we’d all just go and play rugby league, and whilst league is certainly a worthwhile sport (with, among other things, the most passionate fans of any sport on earth), there is no point trying to turn union into its clone. In any case, the extent to which league as a game has been simplified has meant that there are now hardly any infringements or stoppages to speak of and that a scrum is a very rare occurence. This is very much unlike its union cousin, and to do away with the scrum as a tool in the union code would perhaps not suit the game as well as it does in union. Thus, it is certainly worth at least trying to prevent the scrum turning into a dour affair of constant collapses and resets before everyone dies of boredom and we simply scrap the thing.

(I know I’ve probably broken my ‘no Views’ rule here, but I could go on all day about the various arguments and I’d like to get onto some solutions)

The main problem with the modern scrum according to the IRB concerns the engage procedure- arguing (as do many other people) that trying to restrain eight athletes straining to let rip their strength is a tough task for even the stoutest front rower, they have this year changed the engage procedure to omit the ‘pause’ instruction from the ‘crouch, touch, pause, engage’ sequence. Originally included to both help the early players structure their engagement (thus ensuring they didn’t have to spend too much time bent down too far) and to ensure the referee had control over the engagement, they are now arguing that it has no place in the modern game and that it is time to see what effect getting rid of it will have (they have also replaced the ‘engage’ instruction with ‘set’ to reduce confusion about which syllable to engage on).

Whether this will work or not is a matter of some debate. It’s certainly a nice idea- speaking as a forward myself, I can attest that giving the scrum time to wind itself up is perhaps not the best way to ensure they come together in a safe, controlled fashion. However, what this does do is place a lot of onus on the referee to get his timing right. If the ‘crouch, touch, set’ procedure is said too quickly, it can be guaranteed that one team will not have prepared themselves properly and the whole engagement will be a complete mess. Say it too slowly, and both sides will have got themselves all wound up and we’ll be back to square one again. I suppose we’ll all find out how well it works come the new season (although I do advise giving teams time to settle back in- I expect to see a lot of packs waiting for a split second on the ‘set’ instruction as they wait for the fourth command they are so used to)

Other solutions have also been put forward. Many advocate a new law demanding gripping areas on the shirts of front row players to ensure they have something to get hold of on modern, skintight shirts, although the implementation of such a law would undoubtedly be both expensive and rather chaotic for all concerned, which is presumably why the IRB didn’t go for it. With the increasing use and importance of the Television Match Official (TMO) in international matches, there are a few suggesting that both they and the line judge should be granted extra responsibilities at scrum time to ensure the referee’s attention is not distracted, but it is understandable that referees do not want to be patronised by and become over-reliant on a hardly universally present system where the official in question is wholly dependent on whether the TV crews think that the front row binding will make a good shot.

However, whilst these ideas may help to prevent the scrum collapsing, with regards to the scrum’s place in the modern game they are little more than papering over the cracks. On their own, they will not change the way the game is played and will certainly not magically bring the scrum back to centre stage in the professional game.

For that to happen though, things may have to change quite radically. We must remember that the scrum as an invention is over 150 years old and was made for a game that has since changed beyond all recognition, so it could well be time that it began to reflect that. It’s all well and good playing the running game of today, but if the scrum starts to become little more than a restart then it has lost all its value. However, it is also true that if it is allowed to simply become a complete lottery, then the advantage for the team putting the ball in is lost and everyone just gets frustrated with it.

An answer could be (to pick an example idea) to turn the scrum into a more slippery affair, capable of moving back and forth far more easily than it can at the moment, almost more like a maul than anything else. This would almost certainly require radical changes regarding the structure and engagement of it- perhaps we should say that any number of players (between, say, three and ten) can take part in a scrum, in the same way as happens at lineouts, thereby introducing a tactical element to the setup and meaning that some sneaky trickery and preplanned plays could turn an opposition scrum on its head. Perhaps the laws on how the players are allowed to bind up should be relaxed, forcing teams to choose between a more powerful pushing setup and a looser one allowing for faster attacking & defending responses. Perhaps a law should be trialled demanding that if two teams engaged correctly, but the scrum collapsed because one side went lower than the other then the free kick would be awarded to the ‘lower’ side, thus placing a greater onus on technique over sheer power and turning the balance of the scrum on its head. Would any of these work? Maybe not, but they’re ideas.

I, obviously, do not have all the definitive answers, and I couldn’t say I’m a definite advocate of any of the ideas I voiced above (especially the last one, now I think how ridiculously impractical it would be to manage). But it is at least worth thinking about how much the game has evolved since the scrum’s invention, and whether it’s time for it to catch up.