In every match rugby seeks to bring us an impossible thing: civilised violence. Rugby has its being in violence and without violence there is no beauty in the moment when the player breaks free and runs towards glory.
But there’s no pleasure in seeing players maimed for life. We want the game to be tough, hard, and seriously testing of courage: but we need the players to walk away from it. We don’t want the tightrope-walker to fall: we just want him to take the risk that he might.
As the Six Nations Championship continues into its third round – with England, by a pair of miracles, still unbeaten – the sport maintains its own high-wire act. Fall one way and rugby loses its identity as a game of stirring physical contact, fall another and it’s merely disgusting. As times, public ideas about violence and the game itself all change; it’s an increasingly delicate balance.
There was a classic moment in the Wales v England game a couple of weeks back when Owen Farrell of England was floored by a brutally muscular late hit. (A hit is a term borrowed from American football, and refers to a head-on tackle that stops a player in his tracks and makes him regret – at least for a moment – that he ever played a game of rugby.) But Farrell got up, gave a rueful grin and got on with it, fulfilling a rugby ideal of taking it, as well as dishing it out: old-fashioned values in a game that’s been professional for nearly 22 years.
Owen Farrell of England takes a crunching late hit from Wales’ Ross Moriarty
Back in the amateur days, the 16-man punchup was part of the show: “A wee bit of argybargy”, as the great BBC commentator Bill McLaren used to remark indulgently. Such outbreaks rarely caused much damage – few rugby players can put their weight into a punch like a boxer – but they looked bad. So they’ve become rarer in the professional game.
But professionalism has brought other problems. Players train full-time, and they’re bigger, fitter, faster and stronger than ever before. It follows that the hits are more ferocious. Players get injured as a matter of routine.
The laws of the game and their interpretation are constantly reviewed to keep it dangerous – but in a safe sort of way. Head injuries were once considered mildly amusing, but we’ve realised that a player’s head contains his brain – and, as Woody Allen said, that’s my second favourite organ. Now referees are much stricter on tackles near the head. This means tacklers are encouraged to go low, where their own heads are in danger from hard-running boots.
The rules of violent games need to be fiendishly complicated to keep the violence within acceptable limits. That’s the case with American football and both codes of rugby. All these games are about violence, but not anarchy. The price is that the rules are incomprehensible to all save referees – and they’re probably guessing half the time.
Oooff! The great grunt of the crowd after a big hit, empathising with both tackler and tackled. So rugby union marches on, struggling daily to bring us the most civilised form of violence that there is – and that’s why it sometimes brings us enthralling spectacles in which mayhem and grace strive for mastery.
Six Nations Rugby this weekend: Scotland v Wales (Saturday, coverage from 2pm on BBC1, 2:20pm on 5 Live Sports Extra), Ireland v France (Saturday, coverage from 4:15pm on ITV and 4:45pm on 5 Live Sports Extra), England v Italy (Sunday, coverage from 2pm on ITV and 3pm on 5 Live Sports Extra)