It's fitting, in the week the great Dan Carter retired, that probably the most concise and heartfelt outline of rugby's woes was delivered by former All Black captain Ian Kirkpatrick.
Their intersection is appropriate because Carter – the best all-round rugby player these eyes have ever seen – retires at a time when rugby's shape and form is being questioned with gathering intensity.
If you were the opposition, Carter could kill you in every way: a run and that drifting outside break, a fend with right or left hand, precise kicking from hand, highly-accurate goal-kicking, a dropkick, the innate ability to put a teammate into a hole, a sidestep, skilled tackling, topped off with vision of the whole field and its occupants that only the truly great possess.
But, as rugby struggles to free itself from some self-imposed shackles, the question has to be asked whether Carter – not a big man at 1.78m and 90-oddkg – would make the grade in today's muscle-and-defence dominated game.
One of Kirkpatrick's many points was that the game has become the province of bulked-up giants who batter at committed defences that are permitted to encroach on available space – to the cost of the small man, the scamperer, the creatives.
He says the game has become "unattractive, unsafe and ridiculously gladiatorial" and, in a passionate critique, he said the breakdowns, collisions and physicality were over the top. This touches on three big issues facing rugby: concussion, over-emphasis on defence and the bottom-up, creeping death of the grassroots of the game.
Kirkpatrick and other All Black captains including Alex Wyllie, Andy Leslie, Dave Loveridge and Stu Wilson (and other former All Blacks) have been meeting to discuss ways of improving the game. They advocate law changes, though you wonder when World Rugby will finally, glacially, move on such matters; they seem more to be standing on the railway tracks as the bullet train of concussion bears down on them.
Concussion is a major class-action just waiting to happen – recognised by Australia's AFL who are planning a $2 billion compensation fund for athletes affected by long-term effects of head injury. However, they may still be facing a class action from some players unhappy with their insurance coverage for such injuries from previous years.
A $2bn trust sounds like a great idea for rugby – even if we don't know where the money might come from. However, here are some steps the game can take to increase the entertainment but lessen the danger:
• Fewer tactical substitutes – Around the 60-minute mark, coaches throw in their subs – a small army of up to eight 100kg-plus athletes primed to operate at high speed and maximum impact in the collision phases against tiring starting players. Cutting the number down (suggestion: two tactical subs; others authorised only after medical checks for injuries) will not only create more space in the last 20-30 minutes, it could change the preferred physical dimensions of some players over time – with smaller players more valuable and the emphasis on the collision phases reduced.
• Offside laws – A 10-metre offside line at all times to reduce the current defence domination and overdone tactics (playing for territory, box kicks).
• Less contact training – often guilty when it comes to injuries, previously used sparingly. Why not make it so again?
• Soften the clean-out – Rugby players of all generations have felt uncomfortable with players taking out those without the ball. Introduced to take over from the "unsafe" practice of rucking, the cure now seems more dangerous than the condition.
• Scrums – turn time off for scrums to keep the ball in play more. However, to avoid endless resets, more than five in a game would see scrums depowered, with the player judged to have caused the fifth reset yellow-carded for 10 minutes and an automatic two-match suspension. Abandon the irritating scrum penalties – let the ball out and the players run.
• Red card replacements – after 15 minutes have elapsed since a red card, a replacement can stop a match becoming ridiculously one-sided after a player is ejected for dangerous or foul play.
• Differential penalties – To speed up the game and make tries more valuable, make penalties worth only two points. If a side infringes persistently and is penalised more than, say, 10 times in a match, the penalty value rises to three points for their opponents for the rest of the match.
Kirkpatrick's group of captains are meeting, they say, to stimulate debate on such changes. It's not too late – but can the game move fast enough?