Wednesday, September 12, 2007

todays phrase : The Dark Arts of The Scrummage

I like watching rugby union. I really do. But the current world cup highlights the two main problems with it as a sport.

The first is the way that it is talked about. It strikes me that it is a relatively simple game. Okay, there are some finicky rules, but no more than in American Football or Cricket. But the correspondents who cover the sport have long had a habit of creating a dense and impenetrable mythology around the playing the game that is wildly disproportionate with the actual game itself. The best example of this is the endless referencing of ' the Dark Arts of the Scrummage'. I have heard this phrase used many many times but never alongside explanation. Dark Arts are, by their nature, secret and hard to fathom. Yet I have played rugby and find that scrummaging is fairly simple. Any 'Dark Arts' are to do with perpetrating violence on the opposition. Similarly, there is a ridiculous focus on positions. A rugby team is separated into three parts: the forwards, the backs and the linking players. Yes, there are subdivisions in these areas and certain players are given specific tasks or possess specific skills, but there is some idea that it takes years, nay, decades for a player to develop in a role. The game has four basic skills, running, tackling, passing and kicking. Some players are there to tackle, some to kick, some to run, some to do combinations of the lot. Yet commentators talk in a jumble of jargon and vague allusion, rather than describing the action and providing insight.

Perhaps the worst habit of commentators and pundits is the absolute refusal to criticise the game or the players. Any given commentary comes across as an awe struck, almost homoerotic paean to the players and the game. Hyperbole is the default setting. Good things are portrayed as marvellous, heroic acts of genius. Bad play is smoothed over with an uncritical eye.

Apart from when a tackle is missed or kick is imperfect or a knock is committed by one particular class of player.

Before I go on I must declare my potential special interest. I am, in the main, a follower of rugby league. For among the commentators and pundits there is a glaring bias against any player who has transferred from the 13 a side game. The current recipient of this vilification is Andy Farrell, the former GB Rugby League captain. Farrell was signed away from League with a silly money offer to switch to Union. From the moment he swapped codes he was pilloried in press box*. The same happened to Iestyn Harris - who is still the most naturally gifted Rugby player of his generation. Wales took him on and then totally failed to play to his strengths - isolating him in the centre position and then slating him when he didn't single handedly win them every game.

In one sense the union folk can't be blamed. They spent a hundred years seeing their best amateur talent poached by the professional game of league. When Union turned professional they enacted some payback. But the pundits need to get over it, and themselves. It's been ten years.

The other day I heard a discussion on the BBC about the world cup. The pundits were talking about how Union defences have improved in the decade since professionalism, and how this can lead to tight, close, games. Scotland were accused of playing a recent match that was boring to watch. Andrew Cotter, a BBC commentator, presented the argument that because Union had drafted in coaches from League (Phil Larder, Sean Edwards, Ellery Hanley and the like) it was their influence that has created this climate in which games were boring. i.e. that when a Union match is so tedious that it is beyond even the weasel words of the commentators, it is the fault of Rugby League.

The basic fact is that Rugby Union, a fine game to play and watch, is spoiled by the fact that it is still utterly dominated by class. The reason former League players are hated is nothing to do with the actual game, but the fact that they are from the North. The reason even the most inept and boring game is talked up into something awe inspiring is because this is a matter of prestige. The boys public schools where Rugby is the national sport are based on the idea of superiority and leadership. They exist to perpetuate privilege. How can they not play the best sport ever to the best ever standard.? They are the natural heroes of the nation.

*Now that injuries have left Farrell playing fly half against South Africa this week, I am prepared for the obvious. If he plays well, it will be down to the team rallying round him. If he doesn't then he will be at fault for any defeat. In fact in the three days leading up to the fixture, I am considering just unplugging all media, given that the usual pundits will spend that time wittering the same old nonsense.

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