When I was a young fella, the local rugby boys came calling to my house. They had spotted the big body and wanted to get me up training and turn me into the next Mick Galwey, writes Mike Quirke

Around the same time, there had been a big news story about a young rugby player up the country who badly damaged his spine in a scrum and ended up in a wheelchair.

That was enough to put the boss of the house off rugby for ever more.

I felt sorry for the two lads who knocked at the door not knowing what they were walking into. Both big square men, fully equipped with cauliflower ears, and grizzled faces from years spent in the local rugby trenches. But they could never have encountered the type of ferocity of my mother once she copped they were on a recruiting mission.

She cleared them from the house quicker than two scalded cats. Rugby wasn’t for her boy apparently… “over my dead body will he be going up to ye, away with ye”.

It’s a game I would have loved to have played, and I have always appreciated it from a far. The physicality and aggression of it all, the hits, carries, and collisions suck you right into the middle of action and make it easy for the uneducated neutral to enjoy.

Rugby is the closest thing to gladiatorial entertainment that we have in our time. Not since the fall of the Roman empire have combatants entered a coliseum so intent on violent confrontation.

Last weekend, the commercial monster that is the Lions drew against the greatest rugby team on the planet, the All Blacks. It was captivating stuff in fairness, even allowing for the overblown hype spewing out of every Sky Sports presenter to step in front of a camera. They reminded me of salespeople working on commission in a computer store, pushing hard to flog you €3,000 worth of insurance for a €1,000 product. Complete overkill.

Watching the game on Saturday morning between the best of the best, against the best of the rest, it reaffirmed a long-held view of mine, that rugby is a relatively low skill game, especially when compared to the likes Gaelic football and hurling.

Now, in this context I’m talking about skill in its purest form being about the players relationship with the ball. In rugby, it seems its treated a bit like a disgruntled ex-wife, coldly acknowledged rather than loved.

Of course, rugby is a more technical game with far more set-play opportunities which means players must devote huge training time to focus on the physical demands of the game as much as anything.

Tackling technique, scrummaging, line-out jumping and lifting, as well as rucking and mauling all require a colossal investment of hours to acquire the correct body position to be effective and safe on the rugby pitch.

Being tackled, going to the ground and presenting the ball for your team-mates is a physical skill in rugby. Even knowing where to put your head when getting ready to tackle somebody is crucial. It requires repetitive practice to get it right. These physical skills have to be learned to ensure player safety as much as anything else. But none of those are what you’d call skills in the traditional sense of a ball game.

And when you strip away those physical and technical aspects, and you remove the couple of high skill positions from the rugby equation; the scrum half, the fly-half and maybe one or two others, the level of ball skills executions in the game is generally poor.

Think about it, take out the ball playing abilities of key positions like Conor Murray, Ronan O’Gara, and Brian O’Driscoll from any rugby team and the game becomes duller than dishwater.

And I’m acutely aware, this is coming from a guy who was about as far away from the silken-skilled Maurice Fitzgerald as you’re likely to find on a football pitch, but nevertheless, there can be no rational argument, that suggests rugby isn’t a game, particularly in the northern hemisphere, where your skill with the barbell is equally, if not more important than your skill with the ball.

For most rugby players, their primary skill set, specifically involving a ball, revolves around throwing and catching. Obviously game sense comes into it, but ball-wise, that’s about the height of it.

Factor in the difficulty associated with the awkward shape of the ball, coupled with the high level of fatigue that comes from the massive volume of collisions and contact around the small pitch, as well as the impending threat of getting crushed with a tackle every time you take a pass, and for me, the number of knock-ons and unforced handling errors is still way too high for a professional game where the skill set is so limited.

Think about it, if the sum total of your ball skill requirements amounts to just two elements; throwing and catching, then you should be pretty exceptional at those two skills. At the very least you should be able to throw accurately off both sides. Is that really too much to ask for?

One of the commentators last weekend was barely able to contain his excitement about a Lions side-step and off-load that gained a few yards. “What a show of skill!” he exclaimed. Mother of god I thought to myself, all the guy did was run a few yards and offload the ball after being tackled with one hand. The big shock came from the fact that the next player actually caught the ball.

In Gaelic football or hurling, guys have four steps, and if they really want to beat a tight marker, they must throw a dummy solo or some other party piece to create a bit of breathing space for themselves. It’s night and day in terms of the skill set required to play the two games.

And don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to bash rugby here. I really enjoy the game, but I don’t watch it for the skill. I watch it for the toughness and ferocious honesty that the players at every level bring to the contest.

I love the respect they have for the referee. Right or wrong, the referee is always right, and the players just get on with it. It’s an incredible contrast to what GAA whistlers must endure in every game.

What really struck me after that final Lions game, was the instant admiration shared by the players to each other. Despite trying to cut each other in two for the previous 80 minutes, there was nothing but mutual respect at the end.

Those moments encapsulated the best of the sport of rugby. Defeat or victory are irrelevant in the immediate aftermath, teams clap their opponent off the field and display the kind of sportsmanship and camaraderie that every sport should aspire to.

Rugby has plenty of positives, but ball skills sure aren’t one of them. You can stick with the GAA for those.


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