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?