Rugby is a rough game. That has always been a large part of its appeal, the most exquisite of passing movements and delicate chip-kicks notwithstanding. Rugby men were always rather proud of the various epigrammatic variations on the theme that it is a game for ruffians or hooligans played by gentlemen. They took pride in the way that extreme violence could be disciplined by the written laws of the game. They also cherished the unwritten codes of chivalry and camaraderie observed (by and large) by upper-crust old boys, Welsh miners, backveld Boers, and shepherds abiding, between matches, with their flocks in New Zealand or the Borders.
The roughness remains even with changing times and relatively smooth changes in the game. On its upper levels amateurism gave to shamateurism and then to commercially-managed professionalism. With more time to train, the top players not only refined their skills, whether in off-loading when tackled or safely fielding towering high kicks, but put on the right kind of weight to develop new strength and power. They have also been reinforced by richly talented contingents of Pacific-island descent, who not only have the 'genetic' qualities whose absence was recently deplored in Scottish football but sometimes add a distinctly robust contribution to the game. In every country there have been fewer opportunities for diminutive but nippy scrum-halves or wingers and there are no longer many 'Mighty Mice' among the forwards.
Some of the direct consequences of this increased power and intensity are apparent in the steady trickle of early retirements for safety's sake from professional Rugby and, more obviously, in clubs' long injury lists and the extended or recurring absences of some leading players. But among the indirect consequences is bad publicity and genuine concern for the game, linked to two very different kinds of medical anxiety. One is concern for the rough game's impact on its youngest players, especially when they follow trends in the senior game, which is sometimes expressed in unrealistic and unnecessary suggestions that there should be no tackling in school Rugby. Another is the fear that Rugby's repeated clashing and occasional thumping of heads (as well as soccer's heading of the ball) may cause more long-term damage than was previously suspected.
The powers that be in national and world Rugby have been responsive to these concerns. Anyone who doubts that need only compare today's matches, with their head-injury assessments, concussion protocols, and wheeled stretchers for what used to be walking wounded, with videos of games from the early TV age with dazed, battered, and even crippled players struggling on with the crowd's encouragement. That is one reason why a 40-minutes-each-way game may now last more than two hours. It's also fair to recognise the efforts made to equip referees as skilled guardians of good order, to support them when they play their red and yellow cards, and to use video technology to catch the worst of the offences which have been missed or condoned in the fast fury of the game.
But the situation exemplifies some of the difficulty modern Rugby has in combining the rough with the smooth. Its governors are eagerly promoting youth Rugby, especially as it no longer has the natural expansion created when it was steadily promoted in state schools and teachers spent their Saturday mornings on the touchline.
While trying to maintain order among the gentlemanly ruffians, World Rugby (formerly the International Board) is also committed to encouraging ladylike ones. It is hastening in women's Rugby a change only reluctantly accepted in the masculine amateur days of what a best-selling treatise of my youth (still very obtainable on Amazon) proudly called 'The Man’s Game.' It is trying to promote what was essentially a game for players' enjoyment into a big-business spectator sport. And, as with the men's game, it is trying with some success to spread this new diversity to countries which until recently had scarcely heard of Rugby: Japan's men have beaten South Africa; Georgia's can give anyone a decent game; a Russian side in Siberia has just overcome Stade Français in a European competition.
Those of us who long since hung up our old-fashioned boots and baggy shorts can scarcely complain about innovations when we eagerly pay Sky or BT to range over leagues and cups in different continents, sometimes enjoying several times each weekend (except when the TV is commandeered for 'Strictly Come Dancing') skills and excitement that we once experienced only in an annual handful of internationals. But Rugby needs a power of committed public opinion which will support the governing bodies and clubs when they take medical and behavioural problems seriously and will encourage them to ensure that Rugby's old assets and values fit smoothly into the new professional and commercial order.
There are evident dangers. Despite their fine showing in their last two antipodean tours, the viability of the British and Irish Lions, crème de la crème of the four home countries, is sorely squeezed by the extended season demanded by the leagues, one of which wants it to be even longer. The show-games of the Barbarians, an 'invitation club' of outstanding players committed to spectacular and enjoyable attacking Rugby, have been devalued and side-lined. So too have the fixture-lists of many ordinary clubs that still carry great names and traditions. Others languish around the foot of leagues they once dominated. Even the Six Nations internationals, whose traditional pattern of fixtures succumbed years ago to the game's changing priorities, are distantly threatened by the commercial clubs' reluctance to surrender their players for more than a minimum time.
There are already suspicions that the recent poor form of the once spectacular French side owes something to the way the wealth and intensity of the country's top league has diverted the enthusiasm of players and spectators. In the other countries, despite the attractions of the Six Nations tournament, there are occasional hints of a change of emphasis. The autumn internationals are seen as a trial run for the vigour and rigour of the Six Nations. That venerable and exciting competition is already sometimes discussed as if a build-up for the next World Cup, the most commercialised of all rugby events, is as important as winning a Triple Crown or Grand Slam.
The game has come a long way since William Webb Ellis may have caught the ball on the playing-fields of Rugby and 'rushed forwards with the ball in his hands towards the opposite goal.' Even if he did, he certainly didn't get round to passing it. Perhaps a living game, like a living language, must always be changing. The laws as well as the skills of the game have always been adapting to new tastes and needs. In rugby, as in language, there may be changes that have to be accepted and others that should be resisted. Some in each category may be obvious. Many, as the commentators and coaches often put it, may be a '50-50 call.' But in the wider fields of ethos, attitudes, and policy it is for a thoughtful and informed public opinion to make the call, sometimes blow the whistle on bad behaviour on and off the field, and then get on with game.