Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Against Rugby 4: A Fine Disregard

Hello and welcome to Against Rugby, a regular feature of this blog in which I will attempt to offer cogent reasons why Rugby is a Bad Thing.  Obviously this is an unpopular standpoint, and I have to make some things clear right from the outset. 

1) If you like rugby, that’s fine.  But this is not for you.  There are people in New Zealand, believe it or not, who dislike rugby.  And they are made to feel alone, and wrong.  This one tiny segment of this one mostly-unread blog is intended to let these people know that they are not alone; and to offer reasons why they might not be wrong.  That is okay, whether you think it’s okay or not.

2) If you like rugby, that’s fine.  But this is not for you.  You can look outside, or inside, anywhere - at any billboard, television, or website, and see your passion confirmed.  People who dislike rugby in New Zealand have far fewer places to turn to see a point of view they recognise.  This is one of those very few places, and that is okay, whether you think it’s okay or not.

3) If you like rugby, that’s fine.  But this is not for you.  I am perfectly aware that I’ll never convince anyone who likes rugby not to like rugby.  You should be aware that you will never convince me to like it.  That is okay, whether you think it’s okay or not.

4) If you like rugby, that’s fine. But this is not for you, and your comments are not sought.  If you comment in favour of rugby, I’m going to delete it.  It’s my blog, and deleting comments is okay, whether you think it’s okay or not.



Against Rugby 4:  A Fine Disregard

Rugby began when a rich boy cheated at football, and cheating has been woven into the game’s fabric ever since.

It is one hundred and twenty years since the plaque was erected at Rugby School reading: 

This stone commemorates the exploit of William Webb Ellis 
Who with a fine disregard for the rules of football
As played in his time
First took the ball in his arms and ran with it
Thus originating the distinctive feature of 
The Rugby Game
AD 1823

and even this tale of inspired cheating is itself kind of a cheat. We are meant to assume that the Rugby boys were playing soccer when some bright spark thought of running with the ball in hand instead of just kicking it.  

But of course in 1823 soccer was still forty years from being codified - the modern game dates from the formation of the Football Association in 1863, and the FA was a response to the bewildering array of different rule-sets, all of which featured ball-handling to some extent.  Dozens of games such as medieval Mob Football and Cornish Hurling explicitly included ball handling and throwing, and pre-dated Ellis by some centuries.   Not to mention that the sole historical source for the Webb Ellis story left Rugby School three years before the alleged incident, and claims to have heard it from someone.  Whom he doesn’t name.

How then can we say that Webb Ellis invented the game?  Well, we use careful wording (‘as played in his time’, ‘distinctive feature’) and we stick to a rigidly pedantic interpretation of terms such as ‘first’, ‘originating’, and ‘football’, and then we can claim that strictly speaking the story on the plaque is not entirely a lie, even if it could hardly be called honest.

A principle which applies equally to the rules of the game in our time.

A case study:

In 1991 the last Apartheid laws were repealed in South Africa, which obviously isn’t important, but what is important is that in 1992 South Africa re-entered World Rugby.  They had been isolated from international competition for a generation (with the odd shameful exception) and some of their interpretations of the rules had come to differ from those of the rest of the Rugby World.  In particular, South African referees had taken to turning a blind eye to lifting in the line-out.  This had led to a technique of deliberate, tactical lifting which meant jumping players were able to seize a sky-high ball with two hands and pass it with far greater speed and accuracy than unlifted players using one-handed ‘deflection’ techniques which were actually legal.

International scandals abounded.  Arguably (at least the guy who posted this video seems to argue) the tactic cost the South African team the victory in their first official test against the All Blacks in 1992. This article* provides a fair summation of the Rugby World’s thinking at the time: on the one hand, obviously it’s cheating.  But on the other hand, lineouts in the rest of the Rugby World are a shambles, the quality of ball delivered is higher, and pressure would be taken off referees - “…there is a fine line between legality and illegality”, the author notes.  Is there really?  What could that statement mean?

To find the fine line between legality and illegality, it’s worth reflecting on how quickly thoughts turned to changing the rules - the article above was written in September 1992, a month after the matches it describes.  Why change the rules just because one team is cheating?  Well, for one thing, as the article notes, the South Africans didn’t have a monopoly on lineout cheating: “Naturally, the New Zealanders took a dim view of their opponents getting away with illegalities -- as if the All Blacks, for years, have not compressed lineouts illegally to leave their own jumper virtually unmolested. What niggled them most was that the South African specialists had so perfected the art of lifting as to bring benefit to their own teams and, even more important, to providing a quick restart to playing action”.  

And for another, pre-legalised-lifting lineouts were chaotic precisely because of all the cheating that was going on, from compressing the form of the line à la the All Blacks, to using opposing players as levers, tackling receivers while they were in the air, taking out players without the ball - this charming exchange on a referees forum (!) lists ‘thumping’ opponents, driving into their kidneys, and flying elbows among typical lineout activities in the pre-lifting era.  The point of the ‘fine line’ quote was this: “if support forwards are engaged in giving their jumpers more height they are not getting up to something much more against the spirit.”  Which is to say, yes it’s cheating, but at least it’s nice tidy effective cheating.  

But there was another argument for legalising lifting - it would be easier on the referees.   Rugby stands in stark contrast to Actual Sports like Tennis or Sprinting or Diving or Weightlifting, because those Actual Sports can only be successfully conducted if the rules are enforced the same way in every instance for every competitor.

Rugby on the other hand, literally can not be played if all the rules are enforced.  Don’t take my word for it, ask an official Rugby Guru: "It was an amazing refereeing spectacle on Saturday night, as Allain Rolland enforced the letter of the law and allowed zero rugby to be played."  This is not an isolated view.  It is an established tenet of Rugby Orthodoxy that enforcing the rules too much prevents the game from developing a kind of ‘flow’, a certain je ne sais quoi which leads to ‘Real Rugby’ being played.

This view is presented as common sense.  Rugby spectators pay, it is said, to see some men run around throwing a ball, and if the referee stops them running around throwing the ball every 30 seconds just because they broke some pettifogging rule, then everybody loses, and it’s the referee’s fault.  It’s just common sense.

Let’s apply this sort of common sense to an actual sport.  Imagine a South African tennis player who re-enters World Tennis in 1992 and has taken to serving from right next to the net.  This innovation leads to a much cleaner game, as she can simply smash the ball into the ground a centimetre from the sideline, efficiently dispatching opponents with straight aces without all that messy competition.  Of course her opponents complain but this is merely sour grapes.  Think-pieces are soon written in respectable papers about how the rules should be adjusted to reflect the changing nature of the game.  With service now the only phase of the game, Tennis becomes a race to secure the serve, until after a couple of seasons common sense prevails and the entire sport is replaced by competitive coin-tossing.

You’re right, I am being silly.  Because what would actually happen is that this player would be penalised for breaking the rules, every time she broke the rules, until she either ceased to break the rules or forfeited the game.  But - and this is my point - no one would blame the referee for ruining the game.  Actual common sense** dictates that if a player chooses to constantly cheat, and the game is rendered boring by constant referee intervention, the player is the one at fault.  They, after all, have a choice, to cheat or not to cheat.  A referee in an Actual Sport has no choice but to apply all the rules, consistently, for all players.

I’ve tried this line of reasoning out on rugby-defending friends and it is at this point that the howls of protest start.  Rugby is not tennis, they cry.  There are thirty players, a much larger field of play, a greater set of rules, many of which admit of varying interpretations; a referee’s role is not to mechanically enforce a rule-set but to manage, on the fly, the way in which a variety of interlocking rule-sets are interpreted, clamping down on egregious transgressions while turning a benevolently blind eye to the odd infraction to keep the ball so-to-speak rolling.  

Which is a nice way of saying that cheating is woven into the fabric of the game.

In 1995, South Africa won the Rugby World Cup.  In 1996 the rules were changed to specifically allow ‘supporting’ of other players in the lineout.  From then on, lifting was openly practiced by all teams, and in 1999 the rules were changed to reflect what was already happening.

Standard practice: as Rugby for Dummies notes,  “Over the years, many laws have been changed to promote specific strategic objectives, to rein in wayward practitioners of dubious techniques, and to correct imbalances in the way offense and defense interact”.  Because cheating is woven into the fabric of the game, wayward practitioners will always use dubious techniques to push the boundaries of the rules.  And because referees are only interpreters of the rules, bound by dubious common sense to apply only the ones which don’t stop the game being played, the lawmakers are periodically forced to change the rules to reflect the current state of the cheating art.

But who are these wayward practitioners, with their dubious techniques?  Well, let’s start with the poster boy. 

Another Case Study:

Richie McCaw has been considered the best flanker in the world for much of his career, and the basis of this reputation has always been his ability to “push the rules to the limits”.  Which in simple terms means that he has mastered the art of cheating and getting away with it.  How has this not been pointed out? Oh it has. Over and over

For in-depth, detailed descriptions (with pictures) of how McCaw has used vague rules and the roiling physical ambiguity of the period of play aptly known as 'the breakdown' to repeatedly cheat under the noses of referees, all you have to do is read anything written about Rugby outside of New Zealand. In fact even New Zealanders are capable of seeing McCaw’s cheating, provided he is playing for a local team rather than the All Blacks, a phenomenon satirised in this awesome article, which I hereby name New Zealand’s Best Ever Piece of Rugby Journalism. 

His public denials of it are not even denials - from an article linked above: ‘Though stopping short of admitting that he steps over the legal line to find out where the referee has drawn it, McCaw said that reading a whistleblower was a skill he possesses. "I have to work out what I think is right and what he thinks is right might be different and you have to figure it out pretty quick," he said. "I always think what I am doing is the right thing to do, and if he penalises me you think, 'Jesus, I am not going to get away with that today with this ref'. "So you have to change things a bit, and each of them is a little bit different. The knack is being able to do that."”’

At the risk of being repetitive, I’ll point out here that this is what happens when cheating is baked into the game - rules become something that are negotiated on the fly between cheating players and struggling referees.  But maybe I shouldn’t point it out too often.  New Zealand coach Steve Hansen finds the continual reminders that McCaw is a cheat boring.  And standard practice in Rugby if things are becoming boring is to change the rules.  In the article just linked, Hansen opined that a return to rucking would see fewer rules broken by players like McCaw - a reference to a time when people who put their hands where they didn’t belong received a metal-sprigged boot on their fingers as a reminder of what the rules are this week.

Here Hansen joins a long line of Rugby traditionalists who bemoan the way the game used to be played, dating right back to one of the first groups involved in codifying rules for Football - Blackheath FC.  Blackheath had their own ruleset, distinct from those of Harrow, Rugby, et al, and at the 1863 meetings which eventually gave rise to the Football Association, F. W. Campbell withdrew from the fledgling FA when he discovered they intended to outlaw shin-kicking and leg-tripping, collectively known as hacking.  His argument: to eliminate hacking would "do away with all the courage and pluck from the game, and I will be bound over to bring over a lot of Frenchmen who would beat you with a week's practice”.  Blackheath gave their allegiance, for a time, to the Rugby game, which seemed to have a more manly attitude to ruthlessly physically damaging one’s opponents in order to win a game of ball.

So when, in the All Blacks’ first match of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Richie McCaw deliberately leg-tripped Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe in front of 89,000 outraged fans, he was in fact paying tribute to the original rules of the game.  With, let’s say, a fine disregard for the rules of the game as played in his time.

When can we call someone a cheat?  In Actual Sports, it’s pretty easy: they break the rules on purpose.  In Rugby, where cheating is integral to the game, we can only really accuse someone of cheating if they are caught and punished by the referee.  This has been one of the main defences of McCaw’s playing style to date: his self-professed ability to read referees means that he has in fact not been penalised much more often than any other player.  But on the 21st of September 2015, Richie McCaw broke an important enough rule, obviously enough, that a referee removed him from the field of play.  There is no possible question that he cheated, by any possible definition of cheating.  And thus, a cheat being a person who cheats:

Richie McCaw is a cheat. 

He may also be cynical, or dumb. He may also look nice on posters, or do a nice haka.  His friend might offer him a knighthood, in which case he may be Sir Richie McCaw.  

He will remain a cheat.  

That’s what makes him a great Rugby player.  

After all, Rugby began when a rich boy cheated at football, and cheating has been woven into the game’s fabric ever since.

*It pays to go to the Northern Hemisphere journalists if you want a rational analysis of Southern Hemisphere Rugby.
**A term which here means “What you would think if you were not completely fucking mental”