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?

Monday, February 22, 2016

What the Election Should Have Been About

From the Irish Examiner
The final leaders’ debate is on tomorrow. Miriam O’Callaghan will doubtless introduce it as a debate about the issues. But these things are never about the issues. Not around here.

The Irish nation doesn’t do thinking in generalities. Whether that’s the media’s fault or the politicians’ fault is a chicken-and-egg situation – we would have a higher level of political debate if the media would report it, politicians would frame issues in a different way if they thought the media would report it that way. Who knows?

The only thing we do know is that one leader saying that, if elected, he or she will hire 500 new guards, and the next seeing the five hundred guards and raising 300 teachers, is rubbish. Rubbish. Here are the questions that should be asked during tomorrow night’s leaders’ debate, but won’t.

The Economy
As an open economy that does not control its own currency, what would different parties do to exert control on the economy? If inflation is rising, for instance, a government will usually raise interest rates to make it harder to borrow. This lessons the money in the economy and means that prices don’t go up quite as high.

But if inflation is rising in Ireland but flat in the Eurozone, that’s not an option for Ireland. One of the reasons the crash happened was that interest rates were too low relative to the money available, and this created a bubble. What has the current government done to protect the state from that happening again, or from recession in China? What will an alternative government do to protect the state from those and other external economic threats?

The Electoral System Itself
Irish politics is engineered to favour clientelism at every step. To survive, a TD must put local interest ahead of the national interest, even though TDs are elected to govern the nation, not the local area. This is partly why it will be so very difficult to form a government after this election. What steps has the current government taken to address this systemic failure? What steps will the alternative governments take to address this issue?

One of the reasons for Ireland’s current economic prosperity is that the reputation of Ireland’s workforce as being well-educated is very good. But grade inflation has become more and more obvious in STEM subjects at secondary level, and it’s only a matter of time before the tech firms realise the educational system isn’t quite as advertised. What steps has the current government taken to address this issue? What steps will the alternative governments take?

The Distribution of the Recovery
Although elected to govern for the entire state, and by aspiration the entire island, successive governments have favoured the development of Dublin at the expense of the rest of country. A spatial developmental strategy was proposed as far back as 1969, yet nothing has been done about this issue. There are number of reasons for this, bribery, corruption and plain stupidity among them. What steps has the current government taken to address this issue? What steps will the alternative governments take?

Hard case stories are terrible, but governments have to look at big pictures. When it comes to patients on trollies, there are questions not being asked. Are patients on trollies localized – do some hospitals regularly have more patients on trollies than others? Which ones? Why? Are patients on trollies seasonal – are there more patients on trollies in winter than in summer? On Saturdays rather than Wednesdays? This isn’t a medical issue. A medical issue is finding a cure for cancer. The vast majority of issues in the health service come down to poor management. What steps has the current government taken to address this issue? What steps will the alternative governments take?

We have a Special Criminal Court in this state. We have abolished trial by jury in certain circumstances, an extraordinarily totalitarian situation about which the normally vocal liberal lobby are strangely quiet. Why not use these extraordinary powers to break up Irish gangland, rather than seeing them being glamorized in the gutter press and in TV dramas? What is the Government’s position on this? What are the alternative governments’ positions?

Media Ownership
There can be no real democracy without a free press. A free press keeps the people informed on what their leaders are doing. Without a free press, how can the people know how they’re being governed. Recent technological and business changes have turned the Irish media landscape on its head, to the extent that whether or not a free and independent indigenous media is now under question. What is the Government’s position on this? What are the alternative governments’ positions?

Thursday, February 18, 2016

You Can Still Be a Winner in #GE16!

Eight or so days from polling day, and some two months from the 100th Anniversary of the Rising, it seems that Irishmen and Irishwomen are determined to elect the greatest Irish stew of a Government the misfortunate nation has seen. But don’t despair reader – before you pack that Samsonite bag and hightail it to Canada, Australia or where-ever else will have you, knock some bit of crack out of the election at least by trying your hand at elecTeD, the general election 2016 game!

Devised in his simple scholar's hut, or bothán, on plains of sweet Mayo, a friend of the blog has come up with this excellent election competition. Here’s what you do:

  1. Pick who’ll be elected in each constituency.
  2. Send The Man a tenner via Paypal.
  3. 50% of the total pot goes to the winner, and 50% goes to a charity of the winner’s choice. Simple as that.

Don’t fancy them apples? Like your competitions short and sweet? Then take a crack at this one, where you just call the seats for each party. Tenner again via Paypal, and you’re in there.

Entry is open from now until the polls close on polling day, Friday, February 26th. Throw down your tenners now, and get yourself something to cheer in this farrago of representative democracy.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Ungrateful Electorate

Nearly half-way through the General Election campaign, it's beginning to look as though the Government’s master plan was to sit back and humbly accept the gratitude of the Irish people for the fine job they were doing. If Enda and Joan have a Plan B in a filing cabinet somewhere, right about now would be a good time to haul it out.

To get elected on the basis of the gratitude of the electorate seems a tremendously stupid idea for experienced and professional politicians to toy with but, perhaps unbeknownst even to themselves, this seems to have been exactly the Government’s plan. Stephen Collins, who has given up all pretense at being anything other than a Fine Gael cheerleader as he approaches retirement, echoed this in his piece in Saturday’s paper. “The people will surely realise how lucky they have it,” was the message between the lines of his article.

Well. They surely won’t, actually. Electorates are a mean and suspicious bunch, generally. They are always on their guard against sellers of chocolate teapots, as they ought to be – they seem to buy one every time out, after all. But instead of accepting their fate, the electorate seems to insist on reacting according to how they themselves see the country, rather than as how the political insiders see it. One day, they dream, they’ll elect a real teapot, and finally have a good cup of tea. One day.

This, perhaps, is the salient point in this most depressing of elections. It’s always been the case that there has been a distance between the ruling elite and the plain people of Ireland. John Waters explains it brilliantly in Jiving at the Crossroads and, while the country is far better educated now than it was in the 1980s, the elite still seems safely cocooned from what real people are talking about in the real world.

The rise of Sinn Féin in the current campaign is the textbook example of this. Sinn Féin always under-perform their polling, says a studio expert. Gerry Adams made a shocking balls of that TV debate, thunders an op-ed columnist. Marian Finucane has a Dr Julius Hibbert-soundalike on to talk about the – a-ha-ha – long and proud history of the Special Criminal Court, making no mention of a junior minister’s husband and special assistant’s time up before that very same dock. No point muddying the narrative, after all.

And despite all that, here are those dirty, dirty Shinners rising in the polls all the time, and in line to pick up second seats in several constituencies. And every one of those bonus seats is another step closer to power.

Sinn Fein’s rise will be watched with both glee and concern by Fianna Fáil. Glee, because although they are loathe to say it, there is a considerable tranche in Fianna Fáil who will coalesce in Government with Sinn Féin in the morning if only they could. Concern, because if the Shinners could steal the SDLP’s clothes in the North, what’s to stop them doing the very same to Fianna Fáil in the south?

Sinn Féin know how close power finally is too. Reader, have you noticed Eoin Ó Broin’s absence from Sinn Féin’s media appearances? Ó Broin is the mastermind – if that’s the word – behind current Sinn Féin economic policy, but the party is cute enough to keep him under wraps during the election, for fear of his insights – ah, threatening the recovery.

If the Government were serious about taking out Sinn Féin, they would forget about the history lessons. They would smoke out Ó Broin and make him do some sums. Hard sums. Instead, they keep harping on about the past as if the Bay City Rollers were still at the top of the charts.

The Government has the same tactic when it comes to tackling Fianna Fáil. The Indo reports that Fine Gael are to remind the electorate of “the gross and abject contempt which the Fianna Fáil party had for the people of this country,” in the words of An Taoiseach himself.

Well guess what Taoiseach? The electorate gave Fianna Fáil its worst-ever kicking for that offence five years ago, and handed you more power than any other Fine Gael leader before you. You will be judged by how you used that power.

The current Government was elected at a time of crisis and had a unique opportunity to end civil war politics for good. It failed. Enda Kenny could have led a minority Fine Gael government that would reform the state as it approached its hundredth birthday.

Instead, he chose to coalesce with Labour, his theoretical ideological opposites, because that’s the way things have always been done. Anyone who had hope for reform should have got a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach when that happened. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

The Government wants praise for the recovery. The recovery that was engineered by the last government, and overseen by the Troika. But we made the hard decisions! wail the Government. Yes, they did – and blamed the Troika for every lash. Those hard decisions can’t be the Troika’s fault then and evidence of Governmental prudence and far-sightedness now.

The Government says only it can be trusted to be fiscally prudent, while shooting down the best and fairest tax they have. Do they know what they’re at at all? Have they really thought all this out, or did they think they just had to turn up and wait for the cheers?

In the final days of the election, the electorate will have to deal with the prospect of a hung Dáil. A hung Dáil is infinitely more frightening to the politicians than it is to the electorate. You see, reader, for once, the Government is right. When in Opposition, the current Government made much of Ireland having lost its economic sovereignty, and this is still the case.

Every Irish budget from here on in will be signed off by a list of people and European institutions. Frau Merkel, God bless her and keep her, doesn’t care if the homework is done by Enda Kenny or Mick Wallace, as long as the sums add up. Everything else is a detail.

Besides; seeing the scoop monkeys attempting to do their sums may be light relief for her as she faces the twin threats of the rise of militant Islam in the West and a Russia desperate for a war to distract her populace from her own issues of governance in the East. Domestic Irish politics is students’ union stuff in comparison.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Sky Sports and the GAA

Professor Paul Rouse delivered another scathing polemic against the GAA’s current deal to broadcast games on Sky Sports in the Examiner a week or two ago. One of the points that Rouse makes in his piece is that the Association has failed to explain why the GAA did a deal with Sky having maintained for years that it would not. But it is that much of a mystery, really?

The GAA made a deal with Sky Sports for the same reason that 99% of things happen in the world: money. The GAA wanted the money, Sky were willing to stump up. That’s why it happened.

Some of the objections to the Sky deal are centered on the idea that, by dealing with Sky, the great Irish nation is denied its birthright, the watching of Gaelic Games on television for free. But that birthright isn’t quite as clear-cut as may seem.

There was a time when only All-Ireland semi-finals and finals were shown live on TV. You got an hour’s highlights of that day’s games on the Sunday game for the rest of the Championship and that was your lot. As for the League, forget about it. So the notion of the watching of live Gaelic games on TV being part of what we are is a recent development in the long history of the Gael.

There is also the fact that games on terrestrial TV are not free. They are paid for by triptych of license fee, advertising and taxation. That’s not free. And that’s another significant question that the GAA has to wrestle with.

If the GAA cedes the point that watching Gaelic Games live on television is a birthright of the Gael,that limits the parties with whom the Association can do business in terms of selling the rights to those games. A discussion of business environment in which the Association has to deal was noticeably absent from Professor Rouse’s discussion in the Examiner.

As is, there are three terrestrial entities with whom the Association can deal. There is TG4, the best cultural fit, and the channel that were more than happy to broadcast league games, club games and ladies’ games when neither RTÉ nor TV3 would touch them without climbing into the hazmat suit first. Unfortunately, TG4 has no money relative to the other two and are therefore out of the reckoning. A pity, but a lot of things are a pity in this misfortunate world.

The demise of TV3’s coverage is the elephant in the room in all discussions of the GAA’s deal with Sky. TV3 were the first holders of Sky’s current games package, but that deal was not renewed. Why?

TV3 was (relatively) innovative in its coverage. Matt Cooper wasn’t the most thrilling of hosts but Peter Canavan and Darragh Ó Sé were able to give insights into modern football that are beyond some of RTÉ’s current analysts. Insights that were so good that Sky signed that duo up straight away.

So why didn’t the GAA renew their deal with TV3? Nobody’s ever said, but it’s reasonable to guess that they weren’t offered enough money. And that then presented the GAA with a problem.

If TV3 weren’t going to stump up then the GAA had no option but to take what RTÉ were willing to give them. And that severely limits the GAA’s options, not just in terms of money but also in terms of how they want the games to be presented.

There is a strange inclination in the Irish to settle for a fair amount of old rope from the national broadcaster. While the hurling panel can be good, RTÉ prefers to run a Punch-and-Judy show during football matches instead of the sort of half-time analysis that the people want, if not need. But if RTÉ has no competitor, there’s no way that’s going to change.

RTÉ’s coverage of Gaelic Games is lazy in the extreme. Its highlights show during the League is an edited version of the game that was live on TG4 earlier. Its innovative Sunday radio show, presented by Eoin McDevitt and Ciarán Murphy, got the chop after one summer to be replaced by some zombie horror featuring Marty Morrissey and Brenda Donaghue.

Newstalk came up with the biggest innovation in GAA broadcasting when they started doing live games with having two colour commentators, rather than one. It’s been a revelation to hear the likes of James Horan and Darragh Ó Sé discussing a game, an experience that takes adults back to their childhoods listening to adults in the car breaking down a game afterwards. RTÉ persist with Brian Carthy and Tommy “Tom” Carr. What can you say?

If the GAA do not deal with Sky than RTÉ know they have the Association over a barrel. The GAA can’t let that happen. This is a new multi-media age, and the GAA has to keep up and keep thinking outside the box. To never look past RTÉ is to become as stagnant as RTÉ themselves. With so many other obstacles existing in providing the sort of coverage the games deserve, ignoring Sky on a mistaken point of principle would be an extremely short-sighted and naïve decision.