Sports journalist Brendan Gallagher sent out a tweet this week that instantly gave me the topic I wanted to blog about this week.
He said “If Rugby is serious ab(ou)t reducing injuries it must stop tolerating the ‘clearout’ which is actually illegal & causes huge (a) no of injuries”.
He is absolutely right. The law regarding rucks is that players must bind up and drive over the ball. What we now regard as a clearout in fact has no place in the laws of the game whatsoever and is penalisable.
Why is it tolerated then? Like many of things, it slowly creeps in and then is just accepted as the norm. It seems effective and nobody is really unhappy with it, so why penalize it.
There is a deeper reason though. Rugby is currently, and has been for some time, obsessed with giving the attacking side fast and clean ruck ball from which to play, as such the clearout is seen as a valuable weapon in the armoury of the attacking side to create such ball.
It is part of the belief that players, teams, and supporters, hardened or casual, want and need to see lots and lots of tries.
On the surface there is nothing wrong with that, although it is a little insulting that our enjoyment of a game seems to be judged on the basis of whether people can touch the ball down on the right side of a white line or not, is there not beauty and artistry in the creation. Isn’t the joy of creativity in the creation itself, in the attempt? Failure can be just as exciting to watch as success if it is artistic.
Rugby, indeed all sport, is a game built on the battle between attack and defence and the switching from attack to defence and vice-versa. Turnover ball is regarded as the most useful and exciting ball in the game, why then work so hard to try to stop it?
Let us take it step by step if we truly police the clearout. Teams would have to bind and drive over the ball. That would mean that if a defender gets their hands on the ball, they will be hard to move. Ok. Well at a basic level that should be the case even with the clearout as it is, often now a player must be able to ‘ride the first clear’ before being given a penalty for the attacker holding on, that isn’t the law.
Nevertheless, let’s roll with the example. Defenders will be harder to move off the ball. So the logic of that is that more defenders will be attracted to compete in rucks and more attackers will be needed to drive them away in return. This will have one certain result, and one possible one. There will be more space elsewhere, with more people in the ruck, there is more space elsewhere, naturally. The ball might also be slower.
The potential for slower ball would mean that attackers would have to work on their contact skills to promote fast ball, rather than rely on the referee. As we are taught as youngsters, footwork and running at branches ahead of contact, good body angles in contact, and good ball presentation after contact, would give a great chance of fast ball.
It would not happen all the time, sometimes the defence would manage to slow or steal ball, sometimes the attack would have quick ball. When the attack does engineer quick ball, it will have more space out wide in which to move the ball and run into.
In other words, there would be a contest between attack and defence, and the game would be just as exciting. Would more or less points be scored, who knows, but does that honestly matter?
Beyond the aesthetics, the game would also be safer. As Gallagher points out, the clearout is a huge factor in the number of injuries to players. By forcing the bind and drive law the forces are much lower, and the chances of being blindsided, unbraced for contact, much less.
This would also mean that the requirement for quite the number of inhumanly sized players as now would be less, while the focus on good technical contact skills to generate fast ball rather than brute force would also hopefully bring about a change in the brutal size of players too.
Would it have problems? Undoubtedly. Every tweak that is made to the way the game is policed and viewed has unintended consequences, but surely this is worth a go, after all, it is simply the law being policed as it is written.