Thursday, February 25, 2016

Rugby Union Should Be About Position, Not Possession

Eddie Jones, the new head coach of the English rugby team, hopped a ball during the week by accusing Ireland of being boring. For a man rebuilding England in the shape of the pack-dominated great English teams of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, this is a rich slice of fruit cake indeed.

However. The loquacious Aussie larrikin has spoken a truth that dare not speak its name. It is this: modern rugby union would bore the britches off a Scotch Presbyterian. It is horrible. When rugby was an amateur game, what was good rugby and what wasn’t was an ongoing discussion. Now, all is schtum, and nobody must speak ill of the crash-bang-boom game.

The origin myth of rugby is of William Webb-Ellis, bored by the football played at Rugby public school, one day picked up the ball and ran with it. And that is what rugby union is meant to be – carrying the ball and running with it.

But not only is that not what modern rugby is about, picking up the ball and running to daylight is not something you can do in modern rugby. Once you have the ball, you are to look up, find the most convenient member of the opposition, and run right at him, eschewing daylight for a ruck. And another ruck. And another, and another, in perpetuity.

Rugby used to be a game of field position. Now it’s a game of possession, and those two games are fundamentally different. Soccer or Gaelic from the 1970s looks different to the modern games, but 70s rugby and modern rugby obviously, blatantly, clearly different games.

Mike Gibson’s first thought on receiving the ball has to have been fundamentally different to Rob Henshaw’s, even though they both play at inside centre. Rugby is not the game as it was. And the change is devolution, rather than evolution.

Certain rugby pundits sneered at some years ago at Warren Gatland’s Wales as being Warrenball, based on the sheer beef of that human cannonball Jamie Roberts at inside centre.

But reader, Warrenball wins Grand Slams and Lions Tours. Who doesn’t play Warrenball anymore? Where is the team that runs now? The French, the British Lions and Fiji were the one-time great exponents of running rugby. The French can barely field a team any more, as the Top 14 teams/franchises have turned out to be the farrow that ate their sow.

The British “and Irish” Lions, whose very survival this long into the professional era, are on their last legs. South Africa will have fallen into the abyss by the time the next tour there rolls around there and not only could the ‘Stralians not give a stuff about the Lions, Australia only became a tour venue for the Lions when the International Board finally decided to effect the Apartheid ban on South Africa nearly twenty years after it was introduced.

Fiji have no players left, as anyone any good at all is shamelessly and shamefully poached by the New Zealanders before he’s old enough to shave more often than once a week.

And so we have the situation now that rugby union has become a poor man’s rugby league, a biff-bang-boom game, a crash-bang-wallop game, where men too big for their natural frames to support repeatedly crash into each other like a thirty-ball Newton’s Cradle on the grass of Cardiff, of Edinburgh, of Dunedin and divers arenas to many to count, and then wonder why their careers are cut short by injury.

The domestic Welsh rugby competition plans to experiment with new rules. A six-point try (point inflation in the value of the try in rugby union – there’s a project for aspirant rugby statisticians), and two points for every kick at goals. Persistent fouling at the breakdown to be punished by much more liberal use of the yellow card.

Reduced value for kicks, fewer players on the field for the majority of the game and a simpler breakdown? They know that style of rugby in Widnes, Wigan and Hull, but rugby union it ain’t.

Is there no hope for rugby union, then? Should we just bury the thing and move on? Of course not. Rugby Union through its history has been good – much better than the GAA, for instance – at revising its laws to make sure the correct balance is struck between teams’ efforts to win and the spirit, the genius of the game.

We see it now with constant tweaks on the laws at the breakdown, but the game underwent its most dramatic transformation at the end of the ‘sixties when the game was stagnating, just as it is now. Players could only kick for touch on the full from behind their own 22-metre line. A kick that went out on the full became a scrum back, and rugby began its greatest-ever era.

What can be done now to save the game, just as the penalising of the kick on the full saved the game in the 1970s? A suggestion, for your consideration.

Restore the scrum and lineout as contested entities. A scrum won against the head is a rarity in modern rugby, the reason being that the ball is never put into the scrum straight. The straight put-in is still in the rules. Why not enforce it?

The way to restore competition in the lineout is to ban lifting. At the time of its introduction, lifting in the lineout had already been legalised in South Africa during the Springboks’ exile, and a sneaky lift was quite common in the game in general. But the lifting that took place then was nothing compared to the military discipline exercised at the lineout now. For one hundred years, the lineout was a contested entity. Now, a lineout is guaranteed possession.

Could it be that the current emphasis in rugby on possession rather than position is an accidental consequence of lifting in the lineout? Isn’t it the lineout that gives rise to modern truck-and-trailer rolling maul, another blight on the game? If so, a simple banning of lifting in the lineout will make teams think for themselves once again, and maybe bring some sort of spontaneity back to the game. Why not try it? What have they got to lose?