Mind Games: Language of rugby changes with the rules

2014-12-01 10:00

Over the years, the game of rugby has been enriched with many quaint sayings to describe its various aspects.

Easily comprehensible and logical to aficionados, the glossary of terms sounds like gobbledegook to outsiders.

So while the gnarled types who glory in the “ruffians’ game played by gentlemen” nod disapprovingly when a “hospital pass” is mentioned, others might wonder at its relevance.

But “hospital pass” is aptly idiomatic. It means that a team-mate who was passed the ball was in such an exposed position he had no way of avoiding being “monstered” (to use more slang), injured and perhaps being carted off by the “pain police”.

Rugby folk know that a “Garryowen” means a high kick, so named after the club in Limerick, Ireland, for which it was a favourite tactic.

It was designed so that when the ball plummeted down to the catcher, he could be “stiff-armed” by tacklers racing after it.

These days, of course, “stiff-arming” (basically an unsubtle form of decapitation exercised by extending a braced arm and hacking the catcher around the head and neck area) is outlawed and the man under the ball may not be touched while he is in the air, but the use of the “up-and-under” persists.

Rugby has a rich lexicon.

There are glib references to the “red zone”, “coming through the gate”, “professional fouls”, “line speed”, “sin bin” and “exit strategies” and they are grasped as clearly as if they were written in the law book.

Some of these descriptive sayings have emanated from South Africa.

For instance, the SA Rugby Union’s head of referees, André Watson, the only man to have refereed two World Cup finals, coined the phrase “lazy runners” to describe players loitering offside.

This tactic was to create the impression that you were trying to get onside while deliberately getting in the way or impeding play.

Watson’s depiction was spot-on.

Another term thought up by the referees was equally apt but more difficult to use.

Debating the question of when a ball was “out or not” (that is, at what point did it emerge from a melée so that opponents could go for it), referees came up with “when a bird can shit on it”.

The latter was obviously not suited for prying television microphones, but the imagery was perfect – once the space above the ball was clear, that is, if a bird flying overhead could deposit a dropping on it, it was available to be played.

One of the newer pieces of jargon is “truck-and-trailer” – used to describe an infringement in which a player acts as a shield, blocking tacklers from reaching the ball carrier. Charming as these terms might be, it is also an indication of how far rugby has strayed from the laws as they are written and how difficult it must be for referees to be consistently accurate.

The oddity is that sometimes the “truck-and-trailer” is legal; for instance when teams (it is a favoured SA tactic) set up a phalanx of players ahead of the ball carrier and he hangs on until the mass of bodies clears a path for him to crash over the try line.

But the move is clearly illegal as it contains obstruction and goes against rugby’s tenet that “you can’t play ahead of the ball”, but it is still allowed to continue.

The raft of internationals in the UK and Europe in the past month has again highlighted the great disparity in the way various officials interpret and apply the laws. It shows to what extent the match official can skew the style of a team, perhaps even the result.

The scrum laws have become a lottery and when it comes to the breakdown or tackled ball, it would appear the rules have been torn up and thrown away.

One can only hope that World Rugby will address the issue before next year’s World Cup or, at the very least, ensure the panel of referees appointed spends some time together to ensure they “blow the game” exactly the same way.

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