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Finding the right kind of violence: Why rugby has never been harder to play

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9th April, 2024
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My old junior rugby coach, an intellectual man given to deep thoughts, was always at pains to emphasise that rugby was a violent game. If you weren’t willing to both withstand and commit acts of violence, he reminded us, this was not the game for you.

Violence was in the spotlight over the weekend, as much of the attention given to the latest Super Rugby round was devoted to the red cards given to Drua players Frank Lomani and Jone Koroiduadua for elbowing and headbutting respectively.

The ill-discipline of the Drua players was a big factor in the second-half meltdown that saw them blow a lead and succumb to the Rebels, and it showed up one of the reasons why rugby is such a difficult art to master: the requirement to marry high aggression and a strong desire to inflict physical violence on others with accuracy and restraint.

The referee shows the red card to Jone Koroiduadua of Fijian Drua during the round seven Super Rugby Pacific match between Melbourne Rebels and Fijian Drua at AAMI Park, on April 05, 2024, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Jone Koroiduadua is shown a red card.  (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Back in the day, the Norse berserkers were specialised warriors who would ritualistically work themselves into a frenzy before battle, attaining a state of such ferocity that their enemies would be overwhelmed by the animalistic savagery with which they rampaged into the fray. A few years later, Roy Masters would use much the same principle in rugby league when he required the Western Suburbs Magpies players to slap each other’s faces before a game, in order to provoke the appropriate level of anger. Simple idea: slap a man’s face enough and when he hits the field he’ll be ready to belt the excrement out of whoever’s in his path, his hindbrain throbbing with the message that the world is a cruel and slap-happy place and he must needs take revenge on it.

But Super Rugby in 2024 is not rugby league in the 1970s, nor is it Viking warfare. It is in fact a far more skilled affair than either, because a modern rugby player, unlike a berserker, must be worked into a frenzy while simultaneously remaining conscious of his duty of care to the opposition players.

The Vikings didn’t bother much with duty of care. Rugby league players in the 1970s even less so. But nowadays it’s essential, and not just because when the heat of battle has cooled, it’s not great to feel like you’ve done serious damage to a fellow human being: you can lose your side the game if you let your animal instincts get away from you.

There has always been a balance, of course, between aggression and control, that a rugby player must master. But right now it’s as difficult as it’s ever been to strike that balance, because the game has never been more conscious of player safety – or more harsh on any hint of foul play – while at the same time the need to win the collision, to crash with massive force into another human being and physically dominate them, has never been more important.

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Frank Lomani. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

It’s a tricky business to get it right just in terms of precision: to hurtle into a tackle, ruck or maul with the right amount of intent and force to get the advantage over your opponent, without violating the rules, is no mean feat. In a rugby game, a fellow’s head could be anywhere – if you’re going to slam full-tilt into his body, it’s alarmingly easy to give the head a whack without even meaning to.

But that difficulty is exacerbated by the paradoxical nature of the mental state a rugby player must get into when heading into battle. When that old coach of mine waxed lyrical about the violence inherent in the system, it was a message that I pondered long and hard on, because the hardest part of the game for me was always generating the inner mongrel to throw myself with abandon into the more brutal tasks.

I would always be one of the biggest guys on the field, and quite capable of doing a lot of damage to anyone in my path, but while happy to absorb any level of punishment, it took a lot for me to get into the headspace where I’d instinctively be able to dish it out. Which is probably part of the reason why I never reached the highest heights of the game. That and the pies.

That headspace is vital to anyone who wants to be a serious rugby player. You’ve got to go out there ready to bash and crash and destroy, and that means training your brain to see every person wearing a jersey of a different colour to yours – at least for an hour and a half or so – not as a human being, but as a worthless sack of spuds who just said something incredibly rude about your mother.

Which is all well and good, but when you also have to train your brain to understand that you can’t punch the sack of spuds in the face, it requires a special kind of mental athleticism. And it doesn’t always come off quite right. That’s why you get elbows to the head and headbutts and the kind of brain explosions that get some players tagged as idiots or, in worse cases, the most vicious epithet of all: “grub”.

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A grub in rugby isn’t a man who possesses an innate desire to do his fellow humans harm. He’s just one for whom the psychological tightrope walk between attacking the opposition like a bighorn in mating season and keeping on the right side of the rules is more difficult than it is for others.

Of course, there are those for whom that tightrope walk proves tricky in the other direction: the ones who struggle not to stay on the referee’s good side, but to make the collision with the requisite level of brutality. Rather than “grub”, they get tagged with “soft”. But the soft and the grub really have the same issue: the challenge of marrying berserker commitment with new-age sensitivity.

Watch every match of Super Rugby Pacific ad-free, live & on demand on the Home of Rugby, Stan Sport

This is of course something that enters into calculations with any contact sport, but the complications of rugby, with its myriad different ways of introducing massive human bodies to each other, and the modern-day prioritising of safety, make the threading of the needle in our game, in our era, as skilled an endeavour as it’s ever been.

In other words, rugby union has never been harder to play, and we should remember that even as we heap scorn onto the modern player. Not that we should stop heaping the scorn, because heaping scorn is fun: we should just keep it in mind. Because rugby is a game of violence, but also a game of applying the violence to exactly the right spot at exactly the right time. Perhaps that is why it’s so beautiful.

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