Friday, 2 August 2013

“Rugby always repeats”

As regular readers of this blog may know, my brother when I was young would say time and time again that “rugby always repeats” with five tackles by each team  in which players simply “run/fall over/run/fall over” and no variation except obligatory kicking.

Whilst even in 1990 I knew that people in rugby did often run and get tackled during a game, I knew there was much more to playing rugby than running into your opponent and that it was not satisfactory for any team for the repetition my brother described to occur for a full eighty minutes of play.

It’s actually tough to recall from my watching of rugby exactly how and when the “repetition” that my brother says is the part and parcel of the game of rugby gives way to variations such as when:
  1. a really fast runner finds a gap and gains sufficient momentum (velocity) to run through it and gain a lot of territory, or
  2. a team drops the ball and loses possession, or
  3. a team commits an offence at the play-the-ball and concedes a penalty
  4. a frustrated team plays the ball incorrectly (“poor play-the-ball” in commentary) and loses a penalty and the ball
  5. a pass is intercepted and the opposing team scores a try
What’s strange is how Frank Hyde in this article from an April 1982 Sydney Morning Herald actually shows that the “always repeats” play of rugby league was not that old even in 1990 or 1989 when I was complained to bitterly for watching rugby on a Sunday afternoon. At the time the article was written attendances at NSWRL games were at a post-World War II low, and Frank Hyde seemed to think that the “run/fall over/run/fall over” style of play, rather than giving the ball to the backs much more frequently, was the cause of the lack of attractiveness of rugby league.

By 1989, attendances at rugby games had increased substantially despite the fact that tries were considerably rarer than in 1982. There were 15.93 minutes per try in 1989 and 12.41 minutes per try in 1982. Though the 1982 figure would rise to 13.42 minutes per try if we exclude the 186 tries scored in a very dry season against the debutant Canberra club, it is still substantially more frequent try-scoring than in 1989. Thus, scarcity of tries cannot be the cause of why crowds fell so much in the 1970s and 1980s, especially since in 1967 the record high of over nineteen minutes per try was accompanied by larger crowds than in 1990!

It’s likely that the cleaning up of the game and of scrums was a factor in luring people back during the 1980s, though as Wally O‘Connell said as an 82-year-old in 2005 convincingly (and I can testify from footage of older games) cleaning up of scrums did come at a cost of variety because there is no more contest in scrummaging. Perhaps what needed to be done was not to call another scrum if neither hooker won it (as often happened in the 1970s), or more frequent penalties against props for striking prematurely. On the other hand, the ugly and dangerous “wedge” moves as used several times in the 1982 Grand Final certainly lured people away from rugby league and dealing with them was a necessary tool.

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