This morning, like many people with less than a passing interest in rugby, I got up to watch the World Cup Final.
I suppose it’s patriotism of sorts, or perhaps it’s the fact my current work has me writing about rugby on occasion, but I wanted to see if I’d been missing something these last 40 years. To add a bit of context, I think I’ve seen one game of rugby in person, that being a match my cousin Dean played for Market Rasen and Louth. I was quiet and quite meek at the time and felt intimidated by the huge blokes. I didn’t get what was going on, plus I was a bit apprehensive pulling my rusting Rover 214 into a car park almost exclusively filled with shiny Range Rovers or other 4×4 vehicles.
I couldn’t tell you the score other than Dean’s side won, as they often did, but little on that cold, aggressive Sunday morning piqued my interest. Sure, I watch a bit of the Six Nations when it’s on purely as Fe is Scottish and it’s a shared sporting interest we don’t otherwise have. I once went to a Rugby Sevens event at Twickenham too, but remember little beyond the fifth or sixth pint at 1 pm.
Basically, I like football. I like the grace and excitement, I like passion and anger. I like to feel something over a 90-minute match. Sometimes, like Shrewsbury at home the other week, I’m disappointed, Also, because I understand football, I like to dissect it, study it and make assumptions, deductions and form opinions. I can’t do that with rugby, but I still wanted to see if I’d missed something crucial.
I couldn’t get excited by today’s game because most of the points scored, certainly before I took the dog for a walk after South Africa’s second try, came from penalties and tactical plays. I was like watching a game of chess to me, but without the knowledge I have on football I just felt like I spent an hour and 45 minutes waiting for something to happen that resembled sport.
There’s a saying about rugby being a thug’s game played by gentlemen and football a gentlemen’s game played by thugs. I haven’t mixed in circles which have ever been described as gentlemanly but, if I had, I’m not sure some of the absolute bruisers that ran out this morning would have been there in a top hat and tails. Similarly, football for me is the working-class game. I know the people of Wigan and Warrington might disagree, but in the main football is the people’s game, whereas rugby always felt a bit more specialist. That saying fits the narrative rugby players and fans like to roll out, plus it suits those anti-football people who think every player is like Joey Barton and every fan has an England flag tattooed on his chest and a shaved head.
What did I glean as an outsider looking in this morning? I didn’t grasp the rules of the game any more than I ever have before. Maybe this wasn’t a great game to pick, but it seemed to be dominated by easy points from penalties. Personally, as a neutral, I suspect the game might open up a bit if those penalties were perhaps worth a little less; you can grab three points for rolling over funny with a load of blokes on top of you in the middle of the park, but a sweeping try that gets fans off their feet is only worth two more? It’s like being awarded five points for actually scoring a goal at football, but being gifted three points if the referee thinks you held on to someone’s shirt too long. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s an imbalance there, isn’t there? From a layman, if you want to make rugby a bit more exciting, make penalties worth less.
Football has tried outlawing the backpass, upping to three points for a win and all that, so perhaps rugby might like to be a bit more exciting too? For large parts, and do correct me if I’m wrong, South Africa didn’t seem to want to play rugby in the traditional sense of running with the ball and tackling. They seemed to want to kick everything long and it all got a bit like watching Wycombe a couple of years ago. I thought England had more of the ball in their hands and until the final 12 minutes or so were the only team looking to get a try. Again, maybe I don’t fully understand the game.
I was also surprised to see the coaches in the stands watching on a monitor. I’m not sure if this is a good or a bad thing. Surely, a coach should be down on the touchline with his players, encouraging and cajoling? It all seemed a bit clinical to me, a bit ‘Football Manager’ where you were detached, watching it like a computer game rather than living the experience. I understand you can perhaps see more up there and I guess at domestic matches the technology doesn’t allow for such choices, but even so.
However, I started to see some real advantages in rugby that football could use. ‘Play on’ for instance; in football, you get perhaps five seconds before advantage is deemed spent. In rugby, you get far longer. I liked that, playing on for minutes knowing that if you lost possession then it was going back for a ridiculously overpowered penalty kick worth almost as much as a try. We could learn from that (we being football fans who couldn’t name five teams in rugby union’s top flight). I’d love to see our advantages played a little longer at times; until possession changes for instance. How often has a ref waved play on, we’ve surged forward and found ourselves in a corner when a free-kick might have been better but the advantage is spent? Perhaps not every game, but it’s certainly something we could take from the egg-chasers.
I also like the swiftness with which a sub was made. It seemed to me the referee had little to do with the changes, it was all done on the touchline and he simply waved players on and off once the formalities had been completed. It would make it harder to track who was on or off the field, but our matches are broken up all-too-often by late changes, dawdling players and the like. If those changes could be prepped and ready to go with a simple roll of the hands, our game would flow faster. It might make ‘Cowley time’ less beneficial, but we don’t really care about that now.
The one thing I really liked was how the clock stopped when the referee blew his whistle. One huge bugbear of our game, one aspect that I believe spoils it for the spectator, is how often the ball is in play. We play for 90 minutes, but how much is the ball on the field? 25 minutes, tops? For our money, we probably get less than an hour of football. If there were a system whereby the referee held up a hand and a timer in the stands pressed stop, then pressed again when signalled to start back up, we’d get much more football. I wouldn’t get home until 7 pm, but maybe teams would learn a lesson over time.
I also quite liked the injury protocol; not just because the clock was visibly stopped for people to see, but because players could go off for assessment and be brought back on. I wouldn’t want to see this used in a way that could be exploited, but non-permanent subs for head injuries might be a good way of ensuring players get proper treatment without having to soldier on or see his team down one player.
Finally, and this has been touched upon so often, I loved the respect the players showed the referee. This is helped by him being miked up, as were his assistants. Quite how that could work in League One isn’t obvious, but the transparency that it gave supporters ensured there was no need for anger at the ref; whether his decisions were right or wrong the process was clearly explained. Now, I have no idea if his decisions were right or wrong, offside being very different and throw-ins seemingly sometimes taken by the same team that kicked it out, but at least we knew what was happening at all times.
That leads to respect. Players know that the fans can hear what they’re saying and that’s a wonderful tool we could use. If a raging full back started spitting bile because he hadn’t won a throw-in on the halfway line, the microphone could pick ti all up and he could be sin-binned. It might be chaos at first, but so was the backpass rule. Eventually, it settled down and I think dealing with players intimidating the ref has to be like ripping off a plaster; painful at first but better dealt with quickly.
I can understand why they call it a thugs game played by gentlemen; it was brutal and yet those players respected each other and the ref. Maybe it’s because they could get their sneaky digs in at a scrum and know there wouldn’t be retribution; their anger is released in play, not after a mazy run is thwarted by a burly centre half. Even so, if we could adopt that in our game we’d be much better off.
Did I find myself drawn to rugby after the final? No, not at all. I won’t learn the rules of the game beyond the obvious scoring system because I have little interest in putting time and effort into another sport. If England do well, I’ll watch key games but I’ll never pick a domestic team and say I support them. For all of the posturing and aggression, I don’t find rugby a particularly beautiful game. I don’t see the artistry that a well-crafted goal brings me. It’s brute force, tries spring up suddenly and without warning but in the main, it seems to be a methodical and slow game.
That doesn’t suit my entertainment needs, which I would like Lincoln City players to take note of this afternoon; no more Shrewsbury at home performances, thanks all the same. If that became the norm I might just have to turn into a ‘rugger’ fan, and you know what that means; I’d have to give Land Rover a call to find out their latest deals, get someone to punch my ears around until they look like giblets and learn not to call referees ‘twats’ at every opportunity.
Mind you, I’ve always fancied a Land Rover…