Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Dumb and dumber

The game of rugby union is under threat. This is not a joke. This is not a drill. It could happen.

For the past year the IRB, in its infinite wisdom, has been experimenting with various proposed changes to the laws of the game in South Africa, in Scotland, in Australia and now in New Zealand. These “experimental law variations” (or “ELVs” as they’ve been pithily labelled) are designed, we’re told, to simplify the 150-page law book and provide more open rugby.

By “simplify” I think they mean “make the game more TV-friendly”. By “provide more open rugby” I think they mean “turn the game into glorified sevens and make it more attractive to a TV audience (and therefore the TV dollar)” although I don’t know about you, but personally I think that watching sevens on TV, without the atmosphere and the beer, is one big snorefest.

One of the solutions the ELVs provide to the so-called ills of our game is to award free kicks for a whole raft of offences that otherwise would incur a penalty. Bravo, now everyone is free to offend without the risk of conceding three points. That’ll really open things up.

Another is to allow mauls to be collapsed. Yes, you did read that correctly. The driving maul, the one tactic which forces the opposition to commit players to the breakdown, will be rendered obsolete as a couple of opposition forwards will be licensed to drag it down while their mates all hang around clogging up the midfield.

Another proposed change is to require backlines to be five metres from the hindmost foot instead of in line with the hindmost foot, as is current law. These offside lines will be policed (although heaven knows how) by "flag judges" and, whilst admittedly this does create space, it is likely to mean flatter backline alignment, less creativity and more and more heavy collisions at pace. I hate to say it, but this is beginning to sound more and more like Rugby League.

It should come as no great surprise that the brains behind many of the ELVs is former Australia coach Rod MacQueen. This makes sense – the Wallabies have the worst scrummage in international rugby (but will now be able to concede free kicks at will), have never been able to defend a driving maul and yet have big pacey backs who will relish the extra space granted to them.

There are many other ELVs, some of them (including a new law preventing players from passing the ball to a team-mate behind the 22 and kicking directly to touch) which even make sense. Others, including the clearly insane proposal to allow handling in the ruck, have reportedly been abandoned. The bottom line, however, is that our game isn’t broke so why try and fix it? The law changes mentioned here will do very little to open the game up and may well have the opposite effect once players (who are no fools) work out how to exploit them. Anecdotal evidence claims the ball is in play for an extra 15 minutes per game under the ELVs but so what? More isn’t necessarily better.

The conclusions drawn from the ELVs are due to be discussed by the IRB during the Rugby World Cup and I’m afraid it’s inevitable that some of these laws, creating a very much dumbed down version of rugby, will be adopted. How long, then, before some bright spark at the IRB, almost certainly an Australian, comes up with an innovative solution to counter the overcrowding in midfield by reducing the teams to 13 a-side?

No comments: