Joe Schmidt's team is playing the style of rugby the sport now rewards. Billy Stickland/INPHO

Simon Hick Column: 'Don't hate the players, hate the game'

Our man says Ireland aren’t taking risks, but rugby clearly doesn’t reward risk takers anymore.

THIS SIX NATIONS is a testament to how quickly an Irish mind can get spoiled. The nine match winning run is boring us. Quit it with the incessantly accurate box kicks Conor, we want our rugby carefree and frothy, a blend of Toulouse 2003 and New Zealand 1995.

The Irish player and management response to the criticism seems to be; don’t hate the players, hate the game. The current laws and refereeing trends dictate that the kicking game is the best option, especially if your team is small and full of good kickers.

You can almost hear the Irish players muttering under their breaths, asking if we’d prefer it if they went back to the free flowing days of 2013 (joint last), or better again the 1990s when Ireland mastered the art of losing matches in a dull way.

Ireland aren’t taking risks, but the sport clearly doesn’t reward risk takers anymore, which, if you want your sport to also be a form of entertainment, doesn’t make any sense.

Rugby union has been trying to catch up with itself ever since the day it went professional, but this season the gulf between the laws and the realities of the modern game are as wide as they’ve ever been. In fact, there are so many holes in the overall logic that it’s hard to take it seriously at times.

There is, for example, a current obsession with protecting the man in the air, a valid objective, but one that’s been taken to such an extreme that players are afraid to go anywhere near the catcher.

It’s now a battle to just be the first man in the air, because once your feet are off the ground you essentially own the space around you. In the Scotland Wales game, once Finn Russell was shown the yellow card, players were actively trying to get their feet off the ground in any situation, so as to invite the tackler and earn a penalty.

Meanwhile, if you’re lying on the ground and the ball happens to be anywhere near your head, an opposition player can swing his boot as wildly as he wants. If he happens to connect with your head, tough luck.

This was how George North received the first blow to his head in the Wales England match, and how the Dave Kearney Paul O’Connell incident came to pass. Intent shouldn’t matter, it’s negligent to swing a boot near anyone’s head, and it’s as dangerous as a spear tackle or coming into contact with a player whose feet are off the ground.


Players are smarter than the law makers, and they’re always taking advantage of these many loopholes. Take the sin bin for example, originally designed to give the wronged team 10 minutes of free space, to punish repeat offenders (offsides/lying on the ball/hands in the ruck/professional fouls) and to in essence speed up the game.

What usually happens is the opposite.

The team with 14 men will wheel scrums, collapse scrums, kick the ball high into the stands, time waste, push and shove, antagonise, talk to the ref, fake injuries and basically make the game as slow moving as possible. Yes they often concede points in those 10 minutes, but they also make the game hard to watch.

It’s far too easy to kill time in rugby. If there are 75 or 76 minutes on the clock, the same tactics come into play. If a team is down by more than 7 points at that stage of the match, you can more or less assume it’s game over, similar to the drivel at the end of an NFL game when one team is on top and the last few minutes have to effectively be played out, as a protocol.

There is a list of other loopholes that damage the game.

You can tackle high as long as you do it with your head (see Bastareaud V Sexton); you can slowly get up from the wrong side of a ruck and accidentally get in the way of the opposition scrum half (see Chris Robshaw, Sam Warburton); you can drive a man 6 or 7 yards beyond a ruck even though he doesn’t have the ball (see New Zealand at every ruck); scrumhalves can ignore the crooked feed to a scrum rule.

And those are just the ones we can see in plain sight.

The key problem is that almost every important international game now comes down to one score and so the chance of one of these loopholes dictating the outcome is huge.

Rugby will never be as pure a sport as football or tennis or basketball. It has, by its nature, too many rules.

That doesn’t mean it should reward conservative tactics, time wasters and dull rugby.

Joe Schmidt teams used to play the most exciting rugby in Europe. With the right laws, the right emphasis and the right referee, they will do so again.

Catch Simon and the rest of the Second Captains lads discuss rugby and more every Monday and Thursday.

Ireland’s 5 best days against England in the Six Nations

All Blacks scrotum victim suspected France on drugs

Your Voice
Readers Comments
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.