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The trouble with rugby is …
Well there are lot of nagging little things to discuss about the game, and how it could be better, especially as the professional and international level.

So many, in fact, that I have decided to embark on a series of columns to discuss what they are what, if anything could be done to fix them. At the heart of the matter is this: Rugby at it’s best is a lot of fun to watch. It involves attack and defense in a variety of different forms; it’s varied, exciting, and – remember how we’ve always sold the game – is a game where large or small, speedy or precise can flourish.

Except I am getting the feeling, as do many fans, that rugby at the highest levels seems to be far too homogenous, too orthodox, and lacks the skills, excitement, and individual flair of certain times during the amateur era.

This is a gross generalization, and as such it’s not always true, but overall, I think fans would like top-level rugby to be more fun to watch. And that’s because …

Issue #1: The players are big.
Look back at the halcyon days of amateur rugby – whether you’re thinking 1967-1983, or 1987-1996 – and generally what you see is a more wide open game. Players could sidestep through holes, and work magic with their passing and their support to score tries of pure beauty.

Now? Those tries show up once in a while, but for the most part we don’t see them because there’s not enough room to move. They tried putting players five meters back at scrums. That didn’t work. They’ve tried other rules changes. For the most part, they h

aven’t opened the game up much.

Why? Look back at the tapes of those games. See how small the players were. These were amateurs, remember; players who had grown up in post-War Europe, where rationing still existed years after the conflict ended. They were skinny – talented, yes, hardworking, and strong, but just not as big as players are now.

The change in size of players, along with some changes in accepted tactics, have drastically cut down on the space available on the field. Defenders bodies are wide, meaning when you try to avboid the tree trunk and run for the branches, you’ve got more tree trunk to run around.

Defenders are agile. As a result of constant training, they are able to move that larger body laterally well enough to cover a wide circle for defense.

Defenders are strong. That means that when you fun for the branches (the arms) those branches are tree-trunk thick. A desperate, grasping tackle is more successful because the defender is physically able to hang on (despite the oh-so-tight clingy jerseys), and then use that handhold to pull the rest of his body into the tackle.

Emotions are different. As much as I enjoyed the amateur rugby, and while I acknowledge that there were some players who never gave up no matter what, remember this was amateur rugby. Players had jobs to get back to after the game; today, players depend on making that tackle for their jobs. This is most true, really, among the fringe players, players who just make it onto the top-level teams.

And tactically, of course, there are more players in defense. A strong-side defensive line in the old days might

 have had seven players in it, covering about 60 meters. Today, such a line might have ten players covering the same space.

So today players take up more space.

They take up space more effectively by being strong and more agile.

They have more at stake in making the tackles.

There are more of them.

That’s why there’s less space for attacking and running rugby. Solutions? Well we considered growth-stunters, building wider fields, rules forcing forwards to be in rucks … yes you see it’s not really viable.

I’ve got some ideas in future columns about how to either increase space or make more attractive rugby possible.

See what I mean about the old time rugby here.