At last. Someone with international credibility and a high profile in the game has come out and confirmed what is being said every weekend in pubs and loungerooms around the world – rugby sucks.
Chris Latham, the dynamic Wallabies fullback who was regarded as one of the most exciting players in the game in the late-1990s and early-2000s, was invited to speak at a media conference to promote the recent Queensland vs NSW Super Rugby clash at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium.
The organisers were expecting a stock-standard, ‘Reds-Waratahs games are really tough, and this one should be a beauty’- style presentation. Instead, what they got was a 78-Test veteran venting his frustrations at the way pedantic officiating and excessive whistle-blowing is killing the game.
Latham, who scored 211 points in 117 games for the Reds, didn’t hold back as he put the boot into the people in charge who have turned rugby into a maze of nit-picking laws, complicated regulations and high-tech interference.
Chris Latham (pictured playing for the Wallabies against England) didn’t hold back when he pinpointed what’s turning rugby union into an unwatchable mess
The electrifying fullback (pictured with fellow ex-Wallaby Al Baxter) is fed up with the over-the-top policing of play, and he’s far from alone
He started by highlighting the case of the Reds’ Test front-rower Taniela Tupou, who was cleared of foul play by the referee and Television Match Official (TMO) for an incident during a Reds-ACT Brumbies match, but later cited by ruling body SANZAAR’s citing commissioner ahead of the Reds-Waratahs clash.
Tupou was eventually cleared by SANZAAR’s Judicial Committee as well, but not before his preparation was disrupted on the eve of the biggest home game of the year.
‘It was cleared by the video referee, it was cleared by the ref,’ Latham said of the incident. ‘The commentary team, who are ex-players, they’re experts in the game, they’ve cleared it, yet SANZAAR still want to keep dragging it through.
‘To have that all cleared and then to have the potential to lose one of your big-name players before one of the biggest games of the season is just wrong.’
While stressing the need to protect players from head injuries and their long-term effects, Latham said the Tupou case was symptomatic of the dialing-down of the physicality of the game which is robbing rugby of its most important feature – the contest.
‘From a pure rugby point of view and as a purist of the game, we’re really killing the game with all these stoppages,’ he said. ‘Rugby’s an inclusive sport. We cater for bigger-boned men and women, the tall and short. If we take the contest out of the game, what do we become – a game that caters for one body shape.
‘The beauty of our game is the contest in every element of the game, whether it’s the scrum, the lineout, the breakdown. Even the contest for high ball has become whoever comes off worst gets the penalty, instead of the one who gets the ball, gets the ball.’
Taniela Tupou smashes Ruan Smith of the NSW Waratahs on March 26. The Reds prop’s treatment by nitpicking refs and match officials was too much for Latham, who said it’s an example of how contests are being taken out of the game
Latham worries that union – which caters to a wide range of different-sized athletes – will become a game ‘that caters to one body shape’ if the constant contests for the ball are ruined by overzealous officiating
Latham said the Tupou case was typical of the overzealous officiating that is frustrating the game’s followers.
So why aren’t more big-name former players doing what Latham did and speaking out publicly?
Because so many of them are still making a living from the game.
If they’re not sitting on committees and flying around the world to attend conferences or bid-presentations to host major tournaments, they are writing columns or commentating on various forms of electronic media.
Try getting a TV commentator to criticise the product that their employer pays out tens of millions of dollars a season to telecast and see how you go.
Not that those commentators don’t earn their money. It is hard to know what was more painful last season: sitting through the Australia-Scotland Test match, or watching the ‘expert panelists’ trying to convince viewers after the game that the Wallabies were anything but dreadful.
Which is not to say it is impossible to get people associated with the game to decry its sorry state. They just won’t let you use their names.
A former representative front rower and top-level forwards coach said to me recently, ‘When the referee blows his whistle for a scrum penalty, I have no idea which way he is going to point his arm – and I do this for a living.’
‘We’re killing the game with all these stoppages,’ said Latham, pictured here with George Gregan after the Wallabies were knocked out of the 2007 World Cup
Another disgruntled rugby follower I spoke to after the Latham outburst works on the promotional side of rugby at the very highest level.
He told me his pet peeve was the constant interruptions to the action as the TMO reviews potential foul play.
‘A couple of weeks ago my wife said she was going to give our baby daughter a bath,’ he said. ‘I told her I would watch some of the Super Rugby game on TV while she did it.
‘I sat down to watch and when she came back about 15 or 20 minutes later, she asked me how the game was going. I had to tell her I literally hadn’t seen one second of playing time because it was all taken up with the TMO replaying some incident.
‘I can’t see why they don’t do what they do in rugby league and put players on report to be dealt with later in the week and get on with the game. My job is to sell tickets to games. It’s hard enough without constant stoppages and video replays or players being sent off for the slightest hint of wrongdoing.’