Black and white and grey

Garth Hamilton Roar Guru

By Garth Hamilton, Garth Hamilton is a Roar Guru

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    When rugby league convert, Clinton Schifcofske, said of his former code ‘It’s black and white and can’t be ruined by the interpretation of the referee … That’s the difference between the two games’, he revealed a lot about rugby league’s opinion of rugby, and of league’s opinion of itself.

    A lot can be read into a good quote and this was a great one. Rarely does so successful a sportsman offer so candid an opinion or for that matter one that is so clearly his own. Put in context, Schifcofske briefly weighed up the relative merits of each code during an interview in which he was weighing up the future of his playing career.

    Rugby’s rule book with its widely interpretable directions harkens back to its schoolboy origins and the ultimate and unquestionable authority of the schoolmaster / referee. A ramshackle coupling of rules from similar games played across a number of schools, rugby’s early rules were a compromised common ground upon which players of slightly different games could compete against each other. The resultant vagaries in rugby’s rules are thus not surprisingly partly responsible for the great divergence in styles of play seen across the world.

    For example the Argentine reading of the legality of barging in the scrum, particularly at club level, differs somewhat to that of Australia’s and yet who down under would deny the Pumas their claim as excellent scrummagers? The Pacific Islanders tackle with a ferocity and disregard for safety that would be penalised in the Welsh valleys, but even the ever-whingeing Jonathon Davies couldn’t deny Brian Lima his tackling kudos. The IRB’s stance on the sanctity of the scrum stands in stark contrast to the tactics employed in French local derbies but … no, not even with my love for Gallic flair can I defend that one.

    These wonderful, challenging and sometimes painful variations are perhaps the most powerful yet untapped tool of Australian rugby’s marketers to set the game apart from its competitors. What good an international game that everyone plays in exactly the same way?

    Where others have seen the ruins of a game, intelligent and probing rugby minds, like that of Rod MacQueen, have found opportunities and have developed new strategies and techniques to push rugby’s boundaries. Such developments, like lifting a player in front of the goal posts to block a penalty attempt, are sometimes outlawed from the game. Others, like throwing some tape around a lineout jumper’s thighs so that the lifter may legally grip him there, become accepted and eventually essential to the way rugby is played.

    Rugby’s vagaries unfortunately offer many opportunities for mistakes and deliberate manipulation by referees and touch judges. World Cup referee, Andre Watson lamented that a meeting with both Sean Fitzpatrick and Richard Harry had led him no further to advancing his understanding of the intricacies of the scrum. This casts doubt on the ability of referees of less experience and less exposure to such esteemed sources of scrummaging knowledge to correctly adjudicate on a failing scrum.

    Poor refereeing of course exists in league too. However, as Schifcofske pointed out, there is significantly less room for divergent interpretations. The black and white of rugby league’s rule book is no accident nor is it the original intention of its founders. Not that long ago it was permissible under the laws of rugby league for the marker to rake the ball back with his foot during the play the ball. It was a relatively irregular occurrence but one that had the ability to cause a turnover and, if that turnover led to or prevented a try, turn a game on its head.

    The legality of raking the ball was of course defined in the rule book of the time however, much like contests for possession in any sport, the interpretation of the strike’s legality was not a constant in the opinions of referees. An illegal attempt to rake the ball resulted in a penalty against the marker and this was sufficient to deter markers contesting every play the ball.

    According to whichever source you trust, and much of the analysis of the origins of rugby league is written retrospectively to suit the interests of the author’s allegiance to either code, the restart of play between tackles, what we now know as the play the ball, was based upon either a scrum or a loose ruck. Interestingly modern rugby league commentators still talk about hit-ups close to the play the ball as being ‘around the ruck’ despite the distinct lack of any discernible rucking.

    Rugby’s scrums and rucks are part of a continuous contest for possession that is an essential theme of the game. Rugby league has steadily moved away from this theme through a series of rule changes. Introducing a handover of possession after six tackles, restricting the ability to strip the ball during a tackle and the relaxing of scrummaging rules have all taken away opportunities for possession to be contested and reduced the importance of contesting possession both at restarts and during general play.

    What these rule changes have done is to remove ambiguities from the game. Justifying these rule changes in the name of improving the entertainment value of the game assumes that a continuous contest of possession is less appealing than a guaranteed reset of play. Similarly justification in the name of simply improving the game assumes the superiority of repeated action over deliberated strategy.

    Of course neither side is absolutely right nor wrong. A liberal and, lets face it, light-hearted take on anything written by Richard Dawkins goes a long way to understanding why one group find more reason to adhere to a game of continuously contested possession whilst others prefer the almost guaranteed resets of repeated action. I am not under sufficient delusion to believe myself witty or intelligent enough to take such an analogy any further but, like Dawkins, I am quite happy to openly and obstinately take a side in the argument.

    As rugby’s law makers review the effects of the Stellenbosch laws and decide with which of them to take the game forward it is essential that the contest for possession must be retained and thus a degree of divergent law interpretations accepted.

    Now that raking is long gone, a game of rugby league will never again be decided by a referee’s incorrect ruling in this area of play. Conversely, never again will a sneaky halfback steal the ball from a tackled, tiring front rower’s lazy play the ball. What was a quirk of the game, part of its character, is now gone.

    There is now one less shade of grey in the black and white utopia of rugby league’s law makers.

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    The Crowd Says (8)

    • June 18th 2007 @ 12:59pm
      spiro zavos said | June 18th 2007 @ 12:59pm | ! Report

      Garth’s point about the various rules of football devised by the public school boys in the first half of the 19th century in England affecting the shape of the modern laws is interesting, and valid. Rugby School had a large field, Big Field, where they played their football. This lead in the 1840s to Jem Mackie becoming a famous runner with the ball, and the real ‘orginator’ of running with the ball, and not William Webb Ellis, a noted cricket player. In Ellis’ day, 1820s, the football rules at Rugby School allowed running with the ball, as long as it was backward. It was Mackie who pioneered running forward with the ball, The rules at Rugby School were changed in the 1840s to take into account this new development.

      At Eton and Winchester a different type of football game was developed which was more along the lines of the famous Eton Wall Game. At Winchester a cruel and attritional form of football was developed based around scrumming. Scrums were know as The Hot which packed down in three rows of three (the origin of the modern scrum). The middle man in the front row was called ‘OP’ (Over the Pill) and the man immediately behind him was know as ‘Up Arse.’

      Accounts of Winchester matches recall how ‘the front row would crash their heads down and try to get them in the stomachs of their opponents before they could do it to them.’ Sound familiar? The other duties of the forwards included having to stand in front of opponents while they booted the ball at them from point-blank range. Players who flinched were said to ‘carry the shame to the grave.’

      In my book Winters Of Revenge: The Bitter Rivalry Between the All Blacks and the Springboks (Viking Penguin 1997) I’ve got a much fuller account of all of this.

      In the book I make the suggestion that NZ has played Rugby School rugby. And South Africa has played Winchester School rugby. NZ rugby has tended to be more expansive in the Rugby School mode than South African rugby which has been dominated by the scrumming obsession of Winchester School.

      Rugby was brought to NZ by Charles John M unro in 1870. Munro was educated at Finchley Hall between 1867 – 1869 where the main sport was ‘the game they play at Rugby School.’

      Rugby was brought to South Africa by the Rev Canon George Ogilivie. Canon Ogilivie had been a pupil at Winchester School before taking up church work in South Africa. He became Principal of Diocesan College in 1861. He believed the Winchester game was ‘a healthy form of winter exercise’ for the young men of Cape Town. Diocesan is still a very strong rugby school.

      This brings us back to Garth’s argument that the various rugby countries play rugby in different ways which gives a diversity to the game, and difficulties for referees to impose a standard form of interpretation of the laws.

    • June 18th 2007 @ 5:26pm
      Longy said | June 18th 2007 @ 5:26pm | ! Report

      This is what makes rugby so interesting – diversity and change. Some changes are for the better and some are not. If one wants a game divoid of challenge and diversity, then spend your Saturday’s on the Playstation. While many decisions are up to one person in the middle that is a good thing. When you bring others into the decision making process (eg TMO), that’s when it gets complicated and more mistakes (above the norm) occur.

      Players what referees to be consistant. Guess what? Referees want players to be consistant too but in the real world neither is possible. Everyone has good and bad games but 99% of the time the better, more disciplined team wins the match.

      Last weekend the better team was RSA no question. Had the Wallabies won, it would have been against all stats and odds. How can you win when you spend most of the game in your own half?

      Clinton needs to simply accept any decision for or against and get over it. To spend time pondering past decisions (mostly against) is energy wasted.

      If he missed league so much, then tear up the agreement and wave him farewell.

    • June 19th 2007 @ 3:32pm
      Ralph said | June 19th 2007 @ 3:32pm | ! Report

      Amen to all that.

      League can’t be ruined by the ref because the rule makers have already stuffed it!

      Let’s hear it for diversity.

    • June 20th 2007 @ 10:48am
      sheek said | June 20th 2007 @ 10:48am | ! Report

      Gee, what beautiful & informative writing by both Garth & Spiro.

      I would like to touch on a comment by Spiro, re William Webb Ellis.

      The World Cup trophy is named in his honour, yet there appears sufficient evidence that William Webb Ellis did nothing of the sort he was purported to have done (we’ve all heard the story, “with a fine disregard of the rules”, etc, etc).

      It appears the act attributed to William Webb Ellis was done with the same retrospectivity that league used to justify its creation. Some old Rugby-ites used the WWE story to justify/cement union’s place as the original rugby code.

      So, if WWE never picked up the ball & ran with it, why do we persisit with the lie today? And why have the name William Webb Ellis attached to such an august trophy?

    • June 20th 2007 @ 11:44am
      spiro zavos said | June 20th 2007 @ 11:44am | ! Report

      The William Webb Ellis hoax is fully exposed in my book ‘Ka Mate!Ka Mate!’ (Viking, Penguin 1998). It was also published in The Good Weekend in 1999, and in ‘Watching The Rugby World Cup’ (Allen and Unwin) my latest rugby book which is in the shops now.
      William Webb Ellis was foisted on the Australian and NZ organisers by the IRB appointeee to the committee that run the first World Cup in 1987.

    • June 20th 2007 @ 8:18pm
      sheek said | June 20th 2007 @ 8:18pm | ! Report

      So Spiro,

      We should all just accept something that is so obviously wrong? Totally based on a falsehood?

      I’m surprised the French haven’t been their contrary selves over this issue. For once they would be entitled to be contrary!

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