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If Cullen in his prime was dropped into today's game, would we see his talent?

By Ben Smith
(Photos by John Berry/Getty Images/Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images and Joanna Caird / Photosport NZ)

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At the end of the day, rugby is meant to be entertainment.

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It is meant to bring excitement, joy, amazement and all the opposite emotions for two sets of fans as two teams do battle.

It seems as if the game in its modern state does more to frustrate, confuse and incite displeasing feelings for fans as the officiating overshadows the contest and we deal with the realities of a fully professional game.

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Aotearoa Rugby Pod | Episode 12
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Aotearoa Rugby Pod | Episode 12

The game as it is now, 20-odd years into the pro era, is played by machines built by cutting edge conditioning and training programmes. By extension, there is hardly any space on the field.

The field size has not changed but the players on the field have. Drastically.

The early era of professional rugby was almost the perfect blend. Athletes were getting better, but not too good for the size of the field, so the space to run was available. Stars could shine.

The motion of a player like Christian Cullen could be enjoyed as defenders struggled to catch one of the most graceful runners the game has seen. When brilliant players got into open space, it was magic.

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If Cullen in his prime was dropped into today’s game, would we get to see his talent?

Since Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has arrived at the Blues, we have seen flashes of his incredible ability, but we are yet to really see the man in open space.

He can beat a couple of defenders with some sharp footwork, but is swallowed up quite quickly and has to resort to an offload. The game is suffocating him.

Space is in short supply, and so is attrition in the modern game. There are 130kg modern marvels who don’t tire out, and when they marginally do, they are simply replaced after 45 or 50 minutes by another one from an eight-man bench.

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The games of old may not be as fast as people remember, but they did have moments of beauty that seem to go amiss today where a litany of passes strung together put together brilliant movements.

It had a different flow to it, flurries of activity followed by kicking duels. It had a chaotic and unplanned feel to it that could be mesmerising.

Today the whistle is blown so much the flow of the game in some instances the game never gets going.

In the amateur era it was not uncommon to see six or seven bodies pile into a ruck. The ruck might be slow to recycle, but there was tension building as to which side the ball would end up on.

Then, all of a sudden, with so many bodies committed, there was space out wide to attack when the ball came free.

It had much better contractionary and expansionary forces at play throughout the match. Despite a range of tempos, there was tension building all the time in phase play.

This tension and range of tempos created uncertainty, intrigue, and built excitement and anticipation.

The players controlled the flow and decided when they needed to kick the ball out to relieve pressure. Unfortunately, the ref controls the flow more than the players these days, and the stop-start nature is intolerable at times.

The rule makers have pushed to speed the game up over the last decade but failed to realise that slower tempo events, like rucks of old, brought tension as the ball was in play and created space elsewhere by bringing players inward.

Cleaning up the ruck to make the recycle laser quick had the unintended consequence of creating abhorrent ‘zero ruck’ defensive schemes, with no defensive players committed, that create nearly unbreakable 14-man walls of defence.

By cracking down on those that dared to slow the game down, rugby’s law makers introduced more and more ruck infringement penalties, but, in doing so, they got rid of this natural tension in phase play.

Tension never builds as one side is getting pinged for one infringement or another before any flow is reached. As a spectacle, excitement levels don’t peak they way they used to because, in short, they aren’t given in a chance to build.

Back then, a casual didn’t need to know the rules. They could enjoy the chaotic flow of the match, the skills on show, and understand simply that more points scored is what mattered.

Today’s casuals can’t understand the game, whilst there is limited flow for them to enjoy, and hardcore fans just argue and moan with each over the rules.

Spare us extra scrum referees and ruck referees please. One man with a whistle is enough. We don’t need three or four spotting every infringement known to mankind.

Re-opening the ruck could create some extra space the game that has been missing, while adding varying tempos of game play that add to the game’s unpredictability. A good old-fashioned pile-in at the ruck would be interesting to see and hopefully become a contractionary force again.

Any coach or player arguing for correct policing of scrums so more penalties can be dished out has no understanding of the original purpose of it.

The scrum was never meant to be a penalty-inducement machine giving your side a free out. It was meant to create space on the field so you could use the ball and restart play.

Use the ball and the space offered to you. Casual fans won’t tune in to watch scums, but they are more likely to tune in to watch a flowing contest where the stars are given space to show their athleticism.

What was a game of attacking space and evading defenders has become one about winning collisions and penalties – and that is what might be the death of it above all other things over the long term.

Because at the end of the day, the pro game relies on eyeballs and if people switch off so will the pay checks.

It used to be the game they played in heaven, will they be playing it in hell in the future? Let’s hope not.

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