Peter Cresswell
Peter Cresswell

Rugby Rules No More!

(Delivered at the launch of The Free Radical Foundation, February 23, 2001)

I want you to consider a very important question tonight, the answer to which could affect the fortunes of this country for some time to come. In fact, even as we ourselves speak here tonight, the question is being urgently debated up and down the country.

The question is this: Does anyone here tonight understand the tackled ball law?

I kid you not. The grinding dullness of rugby's once glorious Super 12 competition makes this is a truly serious subject. Anyone able to put it into simple language so anyone can understand? So even players can understand?

The thing is, as sports become increasingly complicated, the referees begin to take over and we start to lose the game. I watched the Blues beat the Crusaders last night, and the Eden Park crowd showed very little enthusiasm for the rugby. This was because there was very little rugby to watch. In fact, in the average eighty-minute game of rugby now, you're lucky to see thirty-five minutes of action - the rest is players walking around, kicking for position, preening for the cameras, spitting on the ground, and arguing with the referee.

Of course, it's even worse if you have Ed Morrison or Derek Bevan as a referee (or if one of the teams on the field comes from England). In that case, you're lucky to see any action at all - apart from arguments with the referee.

American Football is even worse. The 2001 Superbowl won by the Baltimore Ravens was probably the most boring game of any code of all time - barely 18 minutes of action over 3 hours!! And grid iron, as anyone knows who has ever tried to follow it, is truly a complicated game.

Why do we need all the complication? Most people go to a game to watch a game, not to watch a bunch of whistle-happy Hitlers strangling the life out of the sport. And the more confusing you make it, the less players can understand what's going on, and what they are and aren't allowed to do. It's damned hard to run full tilt into a ruck if you're not sure what you're allowed to do when you get there, and that's one reason many forwards have stopped doing it, and joined the back line instead. It's turning into rugby league, and as Bob Jones famously observed, if you locked the world's greatest geniuses in a room for half a day and told them to devise a game for morons, they'd come up with rugby league. Twickenham's old farts aren't geniuses - just the opposite - but all their fiddling with the rules is so confusing that many players might like to be locked in a room with rugby's administrators for a short while to fight to get their game back.

I give you All Black legend Frank Bunce - writing in the Sunday Star on the opening weekend of the Super 12 competition - who's concerned that the Rugby Union has been handing out rulebooks to Super 12 players. "I know for a fact," says Frank, "that players spend as little time as possible studying the rule book - it's just too bloody confusing - and I hope its not a sign of how the game is to be refereed."

"I don't know where we've gone wrong," he continues, "but rugby is actually a basic game. You compete for the ball, win it, use it, and hopefully score. It's all the clauses and sub-clauses that confuse it."

Frank says he never studied the rulebook. "As far as I was concerned there were three rules: win the ball, don't get caught, and love the ruck. I remember in my playing days getting called into a meeting and being told we were to be addressed on these new rule changes. We looked at each other and said: 'What new laws?' That's how much we knew. Players don't know the laws because they keep changing."

And not just players. John Mitchell, new Chiefs coach and highly respected former English assistant coach - where he worked with Will Carling's "old farts" at the home of the gin-swilling rugby bureaucracy - is also very unhappy. After the first week of Super 12 refereeing decisions he thundered in the Herald that rugby's new rule interpretations made his extensive pre-season training "a complete waste of time! We might as well have started our whole planning on Monday (this week)," he said, complaining that the change in rule interpretation by referees meant "I've had to redesign everything we do. I feel very sorry for the players, who put in a lot of hard work and who have to rely on their instincts. Everything we've done since January 8 has been a complete waste of the franchise's money."

Can any reader of this magazine be unsure by now what analogy I'm going to want you to draw?

John Mitchell spends an entire pre-season preparing his team, but "thirty minutes into the Chiefs' first round loss to the Waratahs, he realised he would have to totally re-design the side's strategy." Frank says he followed three simple principles, not all the complicated laws: "as far as I was concerned there were three rules: win the ball, don't get caught, and love the ruck." Simple. But Frank kept getting penalised because rugby wasn't the simple game he thought it should be.

In February, I went to the Aussie Rules at Wellington Stadium, and it was a fantastic spectacle with the Brisbane Lions running over recent champions the Adelaide Crows. We saw high marks, running football, precision kicking - and one or two great shirtfronts. Parked outside was a Ford Falcon painted up by local clubs with the slogan: 'Aussie Rules! What Rules?'

Now, to most people's surprise Australian Football DOES have rules - simple rules based on the principle of keeping the game going, and which don't encourage umpires to grandstand. (In fact, most Australians would be hard pressed to name an AFL umpire. They refer to them simply as: 'white maggots'.)

Aussie Rules' rules are actually quite simple - as they need to be for Australians to follow them - and are designed around three basic principles: to keep the game going, to protect the guy going for the ball, and to stop anyone initiating force against anyone else (while anybody's looking). And they work very well; in fact, in a two-hour game of footy, you have two hours of footy.

The rulebook is barely 30 A6 pages, with almost two thirds of that detailing how tribunals, national bodies, and ground marking are done. The guts of it is the 'Spirit of the Laws' which is barely fifty words. Simple rules for a fascinating game. The book is small enough to stick in your pocket - so that even white maggots and Collingwood fans have no excuse for not knowing the rules.

I draw four pretty simple conclusions from this: the fewer stoppages, the better the game; protection of individuals is a good basis for keeping things flowing; the fewer interventions from maggots the better; and, all else being equal, simple is usually best.

Someone observed once that the Ten Commandments was supposedly written on one piece of stone, the US Constitution on ten pages of parchment, but that European Union regulations on bananas are smeared across four volumes - and no one, not even the bureaucrats - and especially not the banana growers - can understand them. We're not much better here in this country, with about 4000 pages of new regulations introduced by our trigger-happy parliamentarians every year. We're going wrong, and it's time to stop it.

Good law, I suggest, is not pages and pages of empty verbage, but is clear, and terse, and based around simple, easily understandable, objective principles. Simple principles that recognise each individual's right to live and to act for his own sake, and that stop anyone initiating force against any other individual. Something like this:

We hold these truths to be demonstrable in reality: that because the mind is our species' means of survival and full flourishing, human beings are individually possessed of certain inalienable rights, which are the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of private property and happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among people, deriving their just powers - and only such powers - from the consent of the governed; that all laws legislated by governments must be for the purpose of securing these rights; that no laws legislated by government may violate these rights; that all citizens are equal before such laws; and that whenever any government becomes destructive of these rights, it is in rebellion against its citizens, who may then remove it and institute new government.

Simple, timeless principles - with a certain debt to Thomas Jefferson. These principles come from a proposed Constitution for New Freeland, first published in issue 38 of The Free Radical (and available still on back issue, for a small fee). Simple rules that tie up the govt, and attempt to ensure that for your three score and ten years of life you get to go hard for three score years and ten, and not get bogged down in a morass of rules, restrictions, and government revenue-gathering.

The purpose of such a constitution (and the original purpose of the US Constitution) is to tie up the govt, not to tie up the game; to tie up the referees, so that - as with Aussie Rules - the govt's whistles are only blown when someone is inflicting force on someone else. To restrict govt, in other words, to protecting me from you, and you from me. And that's it.

This is a very simple idea: The idea that my freedom ends where your nose begins (and if you look carefully at my photograph above, you will see that some of us do get more freedom than others). This is a very simple idea, one easily expressed in law, and possibly the most important idea you will ever hear.

But simple truths still need to be understood. To argue for these simple ideas, we must first understand them. The realisation that you have a right to live for your own sake has been lost in the US. As bad as this is, its constitution - great, simple, and small as it was - has been buried in the process.

I make two recommendations. The first: that New Zealand's laws be made simple, objective, principled, constitutional - and minimal in their intrusion into the lives of New Zealanders. The second: that we give up rugby and start playing Aussie Rules.

Although the Australians would still beat us, we could hope that at least the French wouldn't!

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