Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Cheering Bad Rugby

Ireland are 2/1 on to win the Six Nations Championship, and 5/4 to win their third-ever Grand Slam. Joe Schmidt’s team are fourth favourites to win the Rugby World Cup itself, even though Ireland’s next win in the knock-out stages of that competition will be their first.

Heady days for Ireland, not least for those who spent so many years watching the Golden Generation fall just short, year after year, of winning a Championship. Let’s not even mention the decades before.

Why, then, do the days coming up to what should be a mouth-watering encounter with Wales, recent rivals on so many levels, seem so empty? Why do two lines from Leonard Cohen’s beautiful lament, So Long, Marianne, keep ringing through my head?

“Your letters all say that you’re beside me now
Then why do I feel alone?”

Why doesn’t a dominant Irish team feel like a dominant Irish team? Why is it so hard to squeeze any fun or delight or joy out of this long-awaited dominance? What’s gone wrong?

We all know the answer, of course. Steve Hansen, coach of the All-Blacks themselves, mentioned it only last week. What’s gone wrong isn’t the team. It’s the game itself.

Rugby has always been aware of the need to balance the game between the broadswords of the forwards and the rapiers of the backs. The banning of the direct kick into touch at the end of the ‘sixties gave birth to one of rugby’s golden ages in the ‘seventies. Now, in the professional era, the International Board has to be even more vigilant in its guardianship of the soul of the game.

If this were any other year, the International Board would be swiftly attending to the current devolution of the game where, instead of running to daylight, you are now a crazy man if you don’t find the biggest monster on the other team and run right at his rock-hard tummy.

The International Board aren’t looking at the rules however. The International Board are looking at the calendar, and the calendar tells them that the Rugby World Cup is only six months away. There is no time to do anything more than tweak a rule here or there, and tweaking isn’t what rugby needs right now. It’s full open-heart surgery.

You saw it in one vignette during the first game of this year’s Six Nations, Wales v England. At one point in the game, Dylan Hartley, England’s spirited hooker, squirreled out of a maul with the ball under his oxter and hit the gas for the end line. But Hartley was doomed. He was quickly caught and possession was turned over.

Former Irish captain Phil Matthews was doing commentary for the BBC at that game. Matthews explained that you just can’t do what Hartley did in rugby anymore. You cannot make a break unless you are sure you have support. If you do, you will be choke-tackled, held up and see precious possession turned over.

But what is rugby for if not to run with the ball in hand? Surely that one thing is the sine qua non of the game. And what sort of game is it where grown men, big and strong, cannot go into enemy territory without a chaperone? What happened to the dash and daring of Brian O’Driscoll in Paris fifteen years ago, or rumbling, lumbering glory of Ginger McLoughlin in Twickenham eighteen years before that?

One of Ireland’s greatest-ever international tries against Wales was Noel Mannion’s long spirit from a blocked-down kick at the Arms Park in 1987. Such a run would be gooney-bird rugby now. There’s no longer any room for heroes.

Tony Ward recently suggested in his column in the Indo that the numbers on the field need to be reduced. No. If we wanted rugby league we’d watch rugby league. It’s not like it can’t be found. We want to watch rugby, the game that, at its best, combines the iron fist and the velvet glove like no other.

How, then, to get it back, in this supremely defensive, supremely professional era? Amateurism can never come back. Once your soul is sold it’s gone forever. On the technical side, the lawmakers could look at banning lifting in the lineout, and making it a contest again. Why not? What's so great about lifting?

There is perhaps something they could do about the rucks, but the laws concerning the breakdown in rugby are now so complex that even Professor Ivana Bacik, Reid Professor of Criminal Law at Trinity College, Dublin, would be stumped by them.

So here’s another possibility. Why not enforce some drug laws? The sight of a fifteen-stone man picking up another fifteen-stone man and throwing him about the place like a farmer throwing a wellington at the village sports is now commonplace in rugby. That is by no means commonplace in nature.

Everybody says that players are all getting bigger. But they don’t have to. If the International Board wanted to spot who was doing the dog with supplements and yokes and calf-nuts and God only knows what, the International Board could. All it takes is the will.

In the meantime, let’s hope Ireland can win the Slam, starting with giving Wales a trimming on Saturday. Joe Schmidt is a fine coach, but the media’s portrayal of him as rugby’s General Rommel is nonsense.

Ireland are playing the ten-man game better than it’s ever been played before, but it’s still the ten-man game, where the out-half kicks for territory and the backs are just there to make their tackles if the other bunch have the temerity to run the thing back.

The rugby is appalling, but at least it’s appalling rugby that Ireland are winning. We’ve seen the other day often enough to take some bit of a pleasure in this, scant though it may be.