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Rugby's mind games annoy everyone

Newsroom logo Newsroom 5 days ago Steve Deane
a man wearing a hat © Provided by Newsroom NZ Ltd

Rugby's attempts to protect players from brain damage have left us dazed and confused.

Two things have become clear following All Black lock Scott Barrett’s sending off against the Wallabies in Perth last Saturday.

The first is that everyone has a strong opinion. It was either an obvious act of foul play that could be met with no other sanction than a red card, or an astounding lack of judgement on the part of French referee and serial All Blacks punisher Jérôme Garcès.

Barrett was either victim or villain. The game is either completely rooted, or finally demonstrating due care and attention for its participants when it comes to minimising the potential harm caused by collisions involving the swede.

There is no middle ground to be occupied.

Unless you’re this column, which sees a bit of merit in all of the above, and comes down on the side of sucking it up and moving on.

Shortly.

Before we decamp for Eden Park and a match in which the All Blacks will either assuage a nation’s fears, or spark a mass panic the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Hawaii’s incoming nuclear attack alarm was accidentally triggered, an observation.

Extensive research suggests the camp welcoming the Barrett red card as a triumph for common sense and righteous progress appears to not include a single coach.

Obviously, Steve Hansen was never going to endorse it. But less obvious was the lack of enthusiasm from two of the international game’s pre-eminent coaches, who both happen to be Australian – namely Michael Cheika and Eddie Jones.

"It’s disappointing, for me, that a player gets sent off like that, but referees have been given guidelines,” was Cheika’s view.

Jones was even more strident in his disapproval, describing the Barrett red card as “ridiculous”.

"A bloke gets tackled, [Barrett] goes to be second man in and his shoulder hits his [Hooper's] head and he gets a red card. We can't have that in the game,” offered Jones.

That last sentence is particularly revealing. Coaches like Jones “can’t have that in the game” because, for lack of a better term, incidents like the Barrett dismissal have the potential to render them impotent.

Imagine relentlessly working on a game plan for weeks, if not months, only to have it torpedoed in the opening minutes by a bumbling lock crashing into a stumbling flanker in a way neither intended?

No coach wants the risk of that occurring to be a part of the game – because they all know it could be their team’s turn next, when it is their job on the line.

The whole idea of coaching is to exert maximum influence on proceedings in a way that aids your team’s pursuit of victory. As little as possible is left up to chance.

What we have now, albeit in the noble pursuit of player safety and long-term good health, is the rugby version of Russian roulette.

There ain’t a coach in the world who will willingly sign up for that.

Tactical input isn’t the only area where coaches will be feeling a little limp.

It’s hard to imagine that rousing speeches about running through walls and bleeding in defence of everything a nation holds dear won’t be just a little diminished by the caveat: “Oh but when you do put your body on the line, please make sure there’s no chance of incidental contact to the head of a falling player”.

“Right lads, now get out there and fxxxing smash them – but carefully, with due caution paid to the likely consequences of getting off-balance and not getting your arms in the right place” ain’t exactly a fitting Churchillian call to arms for a team needing to reverse a humiliating 47-26 defeat.

Fair to say, then, that both coaches and players find themselves in an invidious position.

In a game where the preferred modus operandi has always been “hard but fairish”, there is now no more ish. Grey areas have been sacrificed for the protection of grey matter.

There is no room for the common sense and interpretation the likes of Jones and Cheika have called for.

The problem isn’t that rugby has gone soft. The problem is that, in the pursuit of preserving them, rugby has lost its mind.

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