Three away wins on the opening weekend of the Six Nations, three home wins in round two. And yet, for all that, the 2024 championship already has a consistent theme. Five teams struggling for sustained rhythm and a fizzing Ireland on another level entirely, demonstrating to the rest of the field how it could and should be done.
Even the brilliant young Irish anthem singer was a cut above in comparison to the two games on Saturday, both of them modest in terms of overall quality. Scotland really should have put away a sluggish – again – France, and England could not have complained too loudly had a callow Wales hung on at Twickenham. The abiding memory will be the slimness of the final margins rather than the superlative standard of play.
Increasingly this does not feel wholly coincidental. Because rugby union has got itself into a pickle over precisely what type of spectacle it wants to be. It was never designed to be a sport defined by slide-rule pedantry. Too often, unfortunately, that is now becoming its default setting as further underlined at the weekend by the wince-inducing, unsatisfactory finish to the game at Murrayfield.
No wonder Gregor Townsend was so aggrieved afterwards. To listen to the referee, Nic Berry, eventually being talked out of making a visibly accurate decision in the name of flawed protocol was both dispiriting and concerning. If it was good news for France – chapeau to the quick‑witted colleague who coined the nickname Nic Beret – the tangled logic was exactly what rugby did not need as it battles to entice new audiences.
Can you imagine something similar happening in the Super Bowl? For TV replays of a match‑winning late touchdown to be visible to everyone at home and on the stadium big screen only for the officials to rule it out because the crucial footage was only around 95% rather than 100% clear? Once the referee’s call used to be sacred; now there are too many cooks poring over an excessive amount of slo-mo evidence. It leaves rugby marooned in a no man’s land where, among other drawbacks, umpteen high-resolution cameras still cannot tell whether or not a crucial try has been scored.
A hairsbreadth call in any era? Maybe, but the time has come to take a step back and consider the extent to which technology is tying the sport in over-complicated knots. If the eye in the sky cannot be definitive, why be totally straitjacketed by it? What happened to the overwhelming balance of probabilities, as opposed to “conclusive evidence”? And how much more conclusive do you need than a ball clearly sliding off a French leg and on to the grass? If it looks like a pig and oinks like a pig it tends to be a pig. Instead, in seeking to meet an impossibly high level of proof, the officials ended up making a pig’s ear of it.
Similar confusion reigns in other areas of the game. Once again we saw a big tall lock forward, in this case England’s Ollie Chessum, sent to the sin-bin for a tackle which, viewed in real time and taking into account its moderate force, did not appear the most heinous of crimes. Slowed down and frozen at the point of head impact, though, it looked rather worse. Which meant it went to the bunker to be reviewed all over again. Everyone wants a safer game and a reduction in high tackles but common sense has to remain a part of the equation.
Then there was the Mason Grady yellow card for a “deliberate knock on” at a crucial late juncture with Wales still ahead. There was almost no chance for the Welsh replacement to check his reflex movement towards the ball after Henry Slade, at the very last moment, opted to let it slide across his chest. No matter: rugby has become so zero tolerant and so rigidly dictatorial that the referee, James Doleman, once the slo‑mo replays had found fingertip contact, had to reach for his pocket.
Add it all together and what do you have? Players walking a perpetual tightrope, referees in a near-impossible position, games decided by fractions virtually indecipherable to anyone at home on the sofa let alone 100 metres away in a crowded stadium. It just breeds doubt and frustration and, increasingly, accusations of inconsistency. In the wake of the Scotland near-miss, should every try now be micro-analysed? Did Elliot Daly’s pass for Fraser Dingwall’s vital try, for example, float forward? Should George Ford’s tiny little correction of his feet prior to kicking at goal really constitute the start of his run-up proper? Can modern rugby see the wood for the trees?
And where does it stop? Why, a visitor from Mars might ask, are all those head-down forward drives by a succession of human battering rams close to the try line viewed as fine for everyone’s health when a relatively innocuous seatbelt tackle is not? Why are scrum resets allowed to soak up so much crucial time? Why does the game feel increasingly like a vehicle for two teams of litigious plaintiffs to argue about indefinitely?
It is slowly driving a lot of people mad and the Six Nations risks becoming the poorer for it. As Ronan O’Gara posted on social media on Saturday: “Is there any other sport where the officials have such an impact? Too many rules/laws.. too complicated.’ O’Gara loves his rugby as much as anybody. He is immersed in its minutiae more than most. When someone of his intelligence, experience and standing believes a rethink is required, the authorities would be wise to listen.