The limits of the laws

There is something rotten in the rugby world, and it's not Dean Richards. The sanctimonious twaddle being spoken on the subject of Harlequins' "bloodgate" by commentators and former professionals is nauseating. Rugby, they would have you believe, is a saintly game whose halo has been tarnished by the diabolical Richards.

Nonsense. Rugby has always been about seeing what you could get away with. A flanker's job is, near enough, to see how much he can frustrate the opposition with unseen cheating. If the ball comes out slowly from every opposition ruck and maul, he will be lauded by players and commentators. Skid-marks down your back where you have been rucked out of the way are worn with pride. If you can create a hole by distracting the opposition (a tug, nudge or foot on the laces) and get away with it, you will be congratulated as much as the try-scorer (privately, in the changing room after the game, if your team-mates are sensible). Rugby afficionados will talk knowingly of "getting your retaliation in first", and never fail to raise a smile at mention of the "99 call".

But there are degrees of cheating, which rugby players understand without it having to be codefied. Whatever you can do to gain advantage without excessive danger is OK (not when it's being done to you, but grudgingly in retrospect, even if you are on the receiving end of it). Players may punch each other without opprobrium, if sufficiently provoked and face-to-face (a "Mendez" is another matter), unless they are stupid enough to get seen by the referee and let the side down with their dismissal (it is the yellow card, not the flying fist, that is the real sin). But high tackles, spear tackles, taking the man in the air, eye-gouging, sharpened studs (remember that, you commentators talking of a more decent past?) and so on are infra dig. They are not manly, honest give-and-take - a contest of brutal force (e.g. shoulder in the stomach of the ball carrier or tackler) that pits man against man. They are sly attempts to disable the other player, risking longer-term injury or worse to the opponent for the sake of temporary advantage, at small risk to the villain.

Two considerations discourage the use of dirty, dangerous techniques, while allowing for the merely naughty, cunning or intemperate. One is the ability to recognize that it is just a game, and while you should leave nothing on the field in your attempt to defeat the opposition, you will hope to enjoy a drink in the bar with them afterwards. But probably more important is the thought of what the game would descend to if these techniques became commonplace. Rugby players understand that, if you dish it out, you have to expect to receive it too. If one of the opposition tries something dirty on one your team-mates, it is understood that you (probably at least two of you) will seek to inflict something at least as unpleasant back on him (if you can do it legitimately - say a two-up crunch tackle - all the better). The use of really dirty, injury-threatening techniques is therefore avoided by sensible rugby-players, for fear that the game would descend to a retributive quagmire where the description of the game as a "war of attrition" won by "the last one standing" would be more literal than figurative.

So a sensible honour code has evolved that serves the interests of players who observe it. The code is based around long-established rules (the "laws" of the game), and is able to distinguish between the mischievous and the malicious. But this code is thrown into confusion when the rules are changed. Whatever their intent, rule-changes usually throw up new opportunities for illicit advantage.

The game has been afflicted in recent years by ever greater legislation (e.g. the ELVs) by micro-managing officials who think you can perfect human nature, or at least control it, through increasingly detailed and complex rules. It tries to replace mutual defence, self-reliance and judgment with prescription, intervention and authority. It has caught the health-and-safety disease.

The result is a game in flux, trying continuously to work out how to respond to the latest changes, what the opposition might do to take advantage of them, and whether you can afford not to do the same. No precedent has been established for whether a particular abuse of a law is acceptably cunning or unacceptably dangerous. So tricks are tried, and, if caught, punished. It cannot have been obvious in advance that Harlequins' sin would fall into the "unacceptably dangerous" category, and I would be very surprised if Harlequins are the only club to have stretched this particular law. Indeed, a limping exit is not uncommon. The fake blood may have been novel, but is that really what differentiates between gamesmanship and heinous crime?

Don't blame those who are testing the limits of authority. People always will. Blame the people who thought it was in the interests of rugby to confuse the hell out of it. Blame the people who, now remote from the playing field, take out the aggression and frustration for which they no longer have an outlet, by demonstrating their power to manipulate the laws of the game. Blame the people who think they know best what is good for other people whose activities are controlled by the laws they impose, based on an arrogant assumption of superiority and perfection of knowledge. Blame the people who assume that other people will be automatons who do exactly what they intended, rather than human beings who behave unpredictably, imaginatively, cleverly or stupidly.

Does it sound like a lesson for life and legislature?

Soaring costs set to soar some more

How many times have we been told that the cost of the Olympics will not rise, only for another few billion to be added to estimated costs? As regular readers will know, if you want a financial estimated, do not ever asked a government department to do it for you as they will be wildly out. The latest reports from the National Audit Office suggest that they have got it wrong yet again. We're already at £9.3bn (steadily rising from £3.3bn to start with).

£3bn gets you nothing these days

The government has spent an extra £3 billion of investment through the lottery and millions more from the taxpayer in an attempt to tackle obesity and encourage kids to take up sport since 1994.  The result?  Absolutely nothing.  There has not been a change in the number of people participating in sport in the past 14 years despite all this cash.  On top of this, of course, the 2012 Games, which are likely to cost £9.3 billion, will do nothing for participation if previous Olympics are anything to go by.  The government have literally taken billions and billions of pounds and poured it down

Epileptic logo

More trouble for the extraordinarily expensive Olympic marketing efforts. The promotional video, jazzed up (or barfed over, depending on your point of view) with animated figures based on our fantastic logo, has been causing epileptic seizures. A 20-second section, showing "a diver diving into a pool which had multi-colour ripple effects", has had to be cut. So we can show our concern for those with disabilities by integrating the Paralympic logo with the Olympic logo, but checking the video for impacts on epileptics is beyond us.

Olympic budget

The celebrations of 2012 days left to the London Olympic Games a few days ago were overshadowed by the publication of a critical Commons Committee report. MPs (mainly Labour) criticised the planners for poor management of the games' finances.

The cost of the delivery has increased from £2.4bn to 3.3bn. This is a result of the planners not thoroughly thinking through the budget before they submitted their bid. Now the government wants taxpayers to foot the bill.


The Olympic bill has risen by 40% since the Games were won last year and its is likely that it will go up even further. The Government must sort out this chaos at once and it needs to get a grip on all the costs and where the funding will be coming from.

An Olympian Mess?

Inevitably fears are mounting that the costs of staging the 2012 Olympic Games are spiralling out of control. To its credit, the Olympic Devlivery Authority has brought in private sector experts to help them manage the project. However, the inevitable political infighting within government, with everyone and anyone remotely associated with the Olympics seeing it as a gravy train, means that the project is seriously in danger of running over budget and behind time. When will we need to start getting used to the idea of a 2013 Games?

BBC censorship

While I'm posting on the subject of the BBC, let me show you a great example of their intolerance of dissent.

In August 2005, I posted on the FiveLive message boards a message complaining that they were covering Championship football when the second Ashes Test was coming to a tense conclusion. They moderated it away. I exchanged correspondence with them, and it was subsequently restored. Below is a copy of the email exchanges. The link to their messageboard archives still works if you want to view the thread. I will post each message as a reply, as the web-host seems to have trouble accepting this all in one go.

Dominance of the "majority"

Yet again, it only took a few minutes of driving yesterday to be infuriated by the radio. 5Live was doing football. TalkSport was doing football. The regional channels were doing football. Radio 4 was doing…. drama.

It is early August. The second Ashes Test is coming to a tense conclusion. Britain’s athletes are competing (mostly unsuccessfully) in the World Athletics Chamionships. The Premiership (football) hasn’t started yet. Why must we have wall-to-wall football? The previous football season only ended in May. And we haven’t even had a break during our two months off - what with transfer gossip and reporting from the various warm-up matches and tournaments that our teams compete in during the “off-season”.

BBC Charter Renewal

Driving back from picking up my car this afternoon, I turned on the radio, more in hope than expectation. I do not listen to the music channels (the channels that play current music lost their attraction when I reached the age of thirty, and if I’m going to listen to oldies, I’d rather listen to my own selection than someone else’s). So I have a grand total of three analogue channels to which I can listen: Talk Sport and BBC channels 4 and 5-Live. My expectations were low from bitter experience. And sure enough, I experienced that small thrill of pleasure that comes from having one’s worst expectations confirmed, followed by the more sustained depression of realising that yet again there was no intelligent discussion going on anywhere in British radio.