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Of Monsters and Men

by Frank Schnittger
Mon Dec 17th, 2012 at 09:04:35 AM EST

It is a sure sign of having too much time on your hands when you start writings Letters to the Editor on the subject of sport. Perhaps it is that the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown or the continuing Eurozone dance of death are simply too depressing, and we need some light relief. Certainly sport has been one of the few highlights in Irish life in recent times, and rugby has been a large part of that success. However the prosaic truth is that I am sad enough to write Letters to the Editor on all manner of topics, and only the most trivial tend to get published (in an edited form).

Monsters needed - Letters, Opinion -

On a weekend of Heineken hell, all four Irish provinces were defeated in the Heineken European Rugby Cup. All were reasonably good performances against formidable opposition, but there is no hiding the structural flaws in Irish rugby: we were bullied up front in each match. We simply don't breed forwards big and powerful enough.

Who knows whether this is a steroidal deficiency or a genetic inheritance, but it is clear that small is no longer beautiful in top-class rugby. Short of a eugenics programme, it is not clear what the solution is.

Matches are decided by referees giving penalties to teams whose scrum is deemed to be trundling forward and by high kicks followed up by marauding beasts. Not the most exciting fare if you are looking for intricate running and handling skills, but the rules and their interpretation will hardly be changed to suit "smaller" nations unless TV earnings are effected.

Anyone got any 6ft 10in, 20 stone, muscle-bound monsters in their extended global family?

Anyway, that is my excuse, and I am sticking to it. Ireland has had a lot of success in the European Rugby Cup in recent years with Munster winning in 2006 and 2008, and Leinster winning in 2009, 2011 and 2012, and so it ill behooves us to start whinging when things go less well. But the rise of the Rugby behemoth has been one of the most startling trends in recent seasons, and could threaten the rise of the sport as a truly global game appealing to players of all sizes, shapes, and range of skills.

Colin Meads, the preeminent forward of his time (1957-1971) was a mere 1.92M or 6' 3" and he played at second row, or lock, traditionally populated by the largest players on the team. Now Mike Philips or Conor Murray the Welsh and Irish scrumhalves are the same size, and scrum half is traditionally the position populated by the smallest players on the field. Now, a pack of 8 forwards typically weighs over 900KG and very few measuring under 1.90M need apply. The power generated by the collisions between such packs of forwards is fearsome and it is not unusual for 25% of a clubs professional players to be injured at any one time. Who, in their right minds, would want their children to play such a sport?

The trend towards giant-ism has resulted in many European clubs importing bigger players from the pacific islands, Argentina and South Africa to make up their rosters, to the detriment of rugby both in those countries and to the development of home grown talent in Europe. It also results in many players being tempted to use creatine or muscle bulk enhancing anabolic steroids to enhance their chances of progressing in the game. The use of such substances is of course denied and the authorities claim to have effective drug testing regimes in place. Nevertheless there is a widespread belief that the use of steroids is endemic.

My Letter to the Editor only makes an oblique reference to "steroidal deficiency" being a possible cause of the relative size disadvantage of Irish rugby because there is very little hard evidence to go on and instances of players being banned for performance enhancing drugs are relatively rare. But then the same could have been said of professional cycling for many years. Let us hope that commercial pressures are not resulting in the rugby authorities turning a blind eye to similar abuse in rugby. A truly great sport could be undermined, not to mention the quality of life and longevity of those who abuse drugs or who suffer injuries as a result of the awful collisions the sport now encourages.

But the best way to reduce the problem is to reduce the incentive to abuse drugs in the first place, by changing the rules which place such a premium on power and size in the current game. Unlike soccer, the rules of rugby have been in continual evolution to improve player safety and spectator enjoyment and further changes to reward pace, elusiveness and passing skills at the expense of brute power would not be difficult to devise. But that would also require addressing the macho culture which surrounds the game and which makes it unattractive to so many. Achieving that cultural change might be the most difficult challenge facing the sport.

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Anyone got any 6ft 10in, 20 stone, muscle-bound monsters in their extended global family?

I suggest you send a team of genealogists to Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, to use DNA tests to find descendants of runaway Irish sailors from the 18th and 19th centuries. Ireland may well be the last of the Six Nations with no Pasifika members on the national team.

Other than that, Ireland's gentle climate might well permit the cultivation of taro, the staple food those monsters grow up on. I'm not clear on whether paddling outrigger canoes and climbing coconut trees are indispensable adjuncts, but they could perhaps be introduced into the Irish high school curriculum.

But seriously. Yeah. Major reform of the game is needed, all the wrong incentives are there. My suspicion is that the internationals are probably clean-ish : high stakes and all : but that the lower levels are probably rife with steroids everywhere.

I don't know whether there's another sport which has changed so much, or so often, with respect to its rules. They try to keep it entertaining, and rightly so. For example, when watching one of the autumn internationals, I don't remember which one, it was nearly halftime before the first scrum was called. I didn't miss them.

So there is no doubt plenty of scope to change the physical incentives through rule changes.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Mon Dec 17th, 2012 at 09:55:02 AM EST
Island gigantism - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Island gigantism or insular giantism is a biological phenomenon in which the size of animals isolated on an island increases dramatically in comparison to their mainland relatives. Island gigantism is one aspect of the more general "island rule", which posits that when mainland animals colonize islands, small species tend to evolve larger bodies, and large species tend to evolve smaller bodies. With the arrival of humans and associated predators (dogs, cats, rats, pigs), many giant island endemics have become extinct.

Maybe we could grow bigger in Ireland if we could rid ourselves of mainland banking preditors...

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot dotty communists) on Mon Dec 17th, 2012 at 10:21:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Except that humans are a large mammal when it comes to island rules, so what we are talking about should be Insular dwarfism - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Which of course explains the earliest settlers of Irleand, also known as the leprechauns.

A vote for PES is a vote for EPP! A vote for EPP is a vote for PES! Support the coalition, vote EPP-PES in 2009!
by A swedish kind of death on Mon Dec 17th, 2012 at 02:51:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
...Ireland is an island of giants.

Legends of Irish Giants Are More Than Tall Tales

Although the Irish legend of leprechauns is probably just a load of blarney, there's scientific evidence suggesting that the fabled stories of giants living on the Emerald Isle aren't just tall tales.


by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon Dec 17th, 2012 at 03:25:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It was France-Argentina.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon Dec 17th, 2012 at 12:18:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I am, by no means, a rugby fan. I was forced to play it in school and found myself constantly bewildered by rules which made no sense whatsoever in terms of keeping the game moving. Or just no sense whatsoever.

It has always been a game which favoured the large and brutal; what finesse may be imagined by spectators seemed observed only in the breach to my eyes.

And the thing that drove me to distraction was being told that the game was about running and passing. To which one can only ask, "have these people ever watched a game?". A kick, followed by a bundle, then a bundle, then a kick. Each set piece occupying its own geological epoch as scrums grunt and collapse or the kicker endlessly throws grass in the air before kicking the ball over the post from inside their own half.

Running and passing ??? You wish !!!

I remember a respected rugby writer discussing the rules a couple of decades back where he suggested that each scrum or in-play bundle were the scene of so many rule infringements that it seemed, even to his eyes, entirely arbitrary which one would be penalised by the referee. And the price of each penalty was invariably a kick at the goal or lumping it downfield for a bundle.

And he added that every rule change seemed to compound the number of offenses possible, but never seemed to reduce them.

You won't change the need for brutal giants until you reduce the premium for having them. Right now, the game is structured around them. It is not a running passing game, so you don't really need people who can do that. It's a kicking pushing game, so you have one kicker and 14 pushers.

change the game back to running passing and you'll get your sport back. But right now you haven't got a prayer cos the rules are against you

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Mon Dec 17th, 2012 at 11:51:27 AM EST
Running and passing ??? You wish !!!

Watched a match in the last ten years or so, Helen?

Thought not. Rules have been, if not simplified, at least extensively modified to ensure a more open, faster-moving game. The ruck no longer exists. There is an awful lot of running-and-passing in any match played on a decent level, much more so than when we were lads.

But there is also an enormous amount of tackling. You receive the ball, you look for a gap and find none, you find nobody to pass to, so you put your head down and try to burst through the two or three guys who are about to tackle you. Or, more realistically, you try to force them backwards when tackled, with help from your mates.

They've made it so that the ball rarely changes hands when you're tackled. Perhaps this is what needs to change. Without transforming it into Rugby League of course, heaven forbid. But perhaps they could take something from rugby sevens. Or something.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Mon Dec 17th, 2012 at 12:04:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The ruck - now often referred to as the breakdown - does still very much exist in rugby, but is very much more constrained by rules penalizing players "going off their feet" i.e falling, or from entering from the side rather than from "behind the rearmost foot". It is also an offense to "seal off the ball" from the opposing team by getting ones body in the way, or for "not rolling away" immediately after a tackle. It is still the most contested area of the sport with micro-seconds determining whether a referee penalises a player "for not releasing the ball" when tackled to the ground, or penalizes the defending player for "not releasing the tackled player". It becomes a real skill for the players to "play the referee" by becoming intimately aware of precisely where his decision points are with respect to what are nearly always borderline decisions.

This part of the game, while sometimes controversial, still rewards speed, strength and skill whilst scrums and mauls are often about sheer power and cheating without getting caught. Teams have to make split second decisions as to which rucks are winnable and how many players to commit to the ruck, and how many to deeper/wider defense. Poaching the ball from the opponents ruck is still a frequent occurrence and is perhaps what most distinguishes rugby Union and League - besides a lot of other factors I am not expert in.

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot dotty communists) on Mon Dec 17th, 2012 at 12:53:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Maybe what needs to change is the likelihood of losing the ball in a maul needs to increase, so that people offload quicker and weight isn't such an advantage. The breakdown is more about skill and technique, weight isn't everything.

It's been sad seeing the way backs these days have to be 2m and 90+ kg, just like the forwards. Because it's all about crunch tackling.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Tue Dec 18th, 2012 at 08:30:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It would be a real shame if we never again see the likes of smaller players like Shane Williams or Brian O'Driscoll.

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot dotty communists) on Tue Dec 18th, 2012 at 10:50:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The idea that rugby, of all sports, should be compulsory at school has always struck me as a particular barbarism. No one should be forced to engage in a physical contact sport against their will. It was supposed to "make a man out of you" I suppose but I don't think it succeeded in our cases!

I had a particularly nasty teacher who delighted in being a bit of a bully boy. I was very young and light for my class so my only virtue, as a rugby player, was that I was a bit of a sprinter. On one occasion, when this teacher was refereeing a training match, I had the good fortunate to receive the ball in some space and proceeded to make a break for the try line. Rather than allow one of his less favoured players to score he tripped me up en-route. He was that kind of a guy. I promptly walked off the pitch and refused to ever play again.

Afraid that I might "spill the beans" on him if he tried to enforce the compulsory rule, I was never made to play again and took up hockey instead. Many years later I was a part time hockey coach in the same school getting free board and lodging for my services whilst I was in college. Because I had this strange notion that kids were supposed to enjoy themselves whilst playing the game my training sessions became increasingly popular and began to reduce attendance at his rugby training session at a time when rugby was still the premier school sport. Despite the fact that I was a junior part-timer and not a qualified teacher, and he a senior schoolmaster at that stage, he physically threatened me if I organized a "competing" hockey training session again.

I don't know what stopped me form giving him kick in the nether regions there and then, but it wasn't fear of the consequences. I think I was secretly enjoying the moment too much and wouldn't stoop to his level. He later became an international rugby referee and I was delighted to see him make some high profile mistakes and enjoy as rather short career.

I find it strange now that I am a fan of the game even though I never subsequently played it - except on one occasion, in front of 1000 spectators, when I made a complete fool of myself in a mixed rugby match. It was a colours week celebration match played in Trinity College in the centre of Dublin. The two opposing teams where led by then current Irish internationals - both 2 metre giants.

The warm-up had consisted of a few pints in the pub and I decided, early in the match, to see if I still had some of my old speed. So I chased the opposing captain to see if I could catch him - just to touch him - it was tip rugby we were playing. Unfortunately the lack of a proper warm-up told on me and I pulled both my hamstrings slightly. The rest of the match I was hobbling around chasing shadows as girls raced passed by me on either side. Not good for an 19 year old ego, but a lot of fun in any case...

As for the rules, I agree they are very arcane, and even the aficionados can disagree on their correct interpretations. In the amateur days the result of close matches was often determined by the quixotic interpretations of the referee. In the professional era the quality of refereeing has become much more consistent but the occasional injustice persists (as in many sports) and is accepted as an unavoidable part of the game. What marks rugby out from soccer is that there is virtually no "simulation" and the level of discipline and sportsmanship shown by the players is light years ahead of what one finds in soccer. No wonder women's rugby is become increasingly popular.

OOps - I see I have already recounted the above anecdote in more colourful detail here. Too many bangs on the head, I suppose...

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot dotty communists) on Mon Dec 17th, 2012 at 12:27:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Simulation is harder in Rugby as you need copious quantities of blood, a broken spine or a full coma before anyone thinks something untoward might have happened.

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Mon Dec 17th, 2012 at 12:43:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The blood needn't be a problem as Harlequins demonstrated not so long ago...

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot dotty communists) on Mon Dec 17th, 2012 at 12:56:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"In the professional era the quality of refereeing has become much more consistent"
As in "constantly biased towards the English-speaking side, you mean?

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi
by Cyrille (cyrillev domain on Tue Dec 18th, 2012 at 09:21:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot dotty communists) on Wed Dec 19th, 2012 at 07:14:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I never reckoned that Henry had been justified in doing what he did.

Nor did I say that the referees were against France in rugby -they favour the English-speaking side. Italian teams get shockers on a regular basis. And suspensions are just unbelievable, the same offense will get 2 games for an England player and over a year for a French or Italian (I'm not sure about Argentinians for suspensions, guess it's in the same group).

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain on Wed Dec 19th, 2012 at 09:20:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I do agree that the "smaller" rugby powers often get a raw deal - Ireland lost a key match to Wales last year because of a clearly illegal try - where a ball supplied by a ball boy was used for a quick throw in - in clear breech of the rules. I can also accept that teams which do not speak the same language as the referee can be at a disadvantage when it comes to influencing his decisions. That is why Alain Rollande - one of the top referees in the world - often gets matches involving French teams because he speaks fluent French.

Where I differ is that I don't see French teams particularly disadvantaged in this regard - France is a world power in rugby, and a referee who offends the French Union won't get too many big matches in the future. I do think that Italy and the Pacific Islands sometimes get a raw deal, but that may also be that their approach to playing rugby s often less disciplined, and so they don't get the benefit of the doubt as often.

Ireland and Irish teams used to be the victims of a lot of horrifically biased refereeing but this has much reduced as the Irish team improved and Ireland became a more important player in world rugby administration and politics. Lions tour matches in southern hemisphere nations used to be refereed by local referees without the slightest pretense of fairness and all-out brawls were frequent occurrences as players took the law into their own hands. This is now rare, and neutral referees are the norm for international matches. So from our point of view things have certainly improved in recent years. Perhaps things look different from a French perspective.

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot dotty communists) on Wed Dec 19th, 2012 at 12:27:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Just look at the games. France is almost always disadvantaged in the Six Nations (except when playing Italy), and it's far worse in the Heineken cup -admittedly, in that case I should say was as I haven't been able to watch a game in the past three years.

But the top is the discipline commission, which seems pretty much controlled by England. There are several cases of 1-2 games suspension for an English player vs over a year for a French or Italian for the SAME offense, including with more serious consequences for the player injured by the English one.

As for referees hurting France and not getting games later, let's see what happens after the world cup final. As of writing, McCaw is still allowed to play. Morgan Parra could not for many months.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain on Wed Dec 19th, 2012 at 09:27:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There have been a couple of recent cases where New Zealand players seemed to get off very lightly - especially as their season is now over and even a several week suspension doesn't mean much in terms of actual matches. I didn't see the offenses so I won't comment, but I know there was a bit of an outcry here. I don't recall the Richie McCaw/Morgan Parra incident you reference but I know Richie McCaw is widely criticised here for "living on the edge of the law" and getting away with it because of his standing in the game - but this is for technical offenses, not for dirty play. Morgan Parra is widely regarded here as a top class player who is not dirty player and so I would be surprised if he got a long suspension. How long was he suspended for, and what was his offense?

On a more general point, the game is MUCH cleaner than it used to be because of television and citing commissioners who can use video evidence to view incidents the referee missed. It used to be quite a thuggish game, but now the thugs have nearly all been rooted out. French players used to have a very bad reputation over here for eye gouging and really serious offenses at scrum time - I remember Attoub was guilty of a really serious offense - and I am more than happy to see very serious sanctions for that kind of behaviour.

But my point is that the game has improved out of all recognition in terms of the elimination of dirty play and I think TV and the disciplinary regime deserves a lot of credit for that. Now minor offense which used to go unpunished can draw a 2 match suspension and I don't have a problem with that. I know you think that English speaking referees have been unfair to France but from what I have seen that is nothing compared to how unfair English - and particular English - referees has traditionally been to Irish teams. Perhaps we're just more used to refs being biased against us!

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot dotty communists) on Thu Dec 20th, 2012 at 07:01:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Parra was guilty of being the French kicker in the world cup final. McCaw deliberately brutalised his face with his knee. Twice -because the first time he managed to come back on the pitch after the blood substitution.

McCaw does by no mean stop at technical offenses.

Yes, Attoub was bad, but at pretty much the same time an English player made a worse eye gouging and got two games. There's a major consistency problem.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain on Thu Dec 20th, 2012 at 09:41:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, American football is pretty much about running and passing . . . by a few of the players at any rate.

Brutal as it is, American football really is unlike any other professional sport, in that the roles on the field are so specialized.  Sure, a center and a small forward in basketball have different style, but they are playing the same game.  A quarterback and a member of the defensive line really aren't, the differences being more akin to the differences between a radar station, a submarine, and a battle tank.  Further, the whole offensive coordinator phenomenon simply could not happen in any other sport, and is a level of strategy all by itself.

I can't say anything about Rugby, being American, so I won't.

by Zwackus on Wed Dec 19th, 2012 at 12:28:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There are fifteen positions on a Rugby team and they are all also extremely (and increasingly) specialised, although some players can cover a few positions, and some positions are more alike than others. Probably the most interchangeable are the left and right wingers, and the full back role is also sometimes interchangeable with the wingers - although positionally very different - the skills required are much the same.

It would take a whole new post to go through all the positions, and I doubt many here at ET who would be interested, but that used to be one of rugby's main attractions, that many people of different shapes and sizes could play it. The point of this post is that now even many wingers have become 2 metre giants, whist not so long ago the Shane Williams of this world could excel despite being only 1.70M, and Brian O'Driscoll, now past his best, but once the best back in the world is only a claimed 1.78M.

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot dotty communists) on Wed Dec 19th, 2012 at 07:10:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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