A kick in the teeth

2009-04-10 00:00

Fasten your seatbelts folks — rugby is about to return to the dark ages.

Most of the more significant Experimental Law Variations (ELVs) are about to be ditched after English rugby bosses led European opposition to the changes at the two-day International Rugby Board (IRB) conference in London last week.

Some 60 influential international rugby personalities recommended that the most significant ELVs be scrapped. The IRB’s rugby committee will now present proposals for approval by the full IRB Council on May 13 with a revised lawbook due on August 1.

Ian McIntosh, the former Bok and Sharks coach, served on the IRB’s Laws Project Group, which introduced the changes and he sees the writing on the wall.

“We are disappointed that years of hard work, along with evidence produced by trials held in South Africa, New Zealand and Scotland, have been ignored or misunderstood.

“For the first time the IRB took practical steps to look at the laws instead of just forcing them on the game from the boardroom. But, sadly, they were not trialed globally and holistically to give everyone an objective view.”

A number of coaches, among them former Wallaby coach Eddie Jones, Jake White and Heyneke Meyer, have also been vocal in their criticism of the changes.

White said that the game wasn’t broken so why fix it, Meyer believes that the ELVs have led to more kicking (which some might find a bit rich coming from a Blue Bulls coach) and dial-a-quote Jones said “the process has been a monumental failure, driven forward by people who no longer operate at rugby’s business end, against the firm advice of those of us who saw the pitfalls right from the start”.

Fellow-Australian, World Cup-winning coach Rod Macqueen, who was with McIntosh on the project committee, says that Jones “is missing the point completely”.

And McIntosh agrees, adding that the scrapping of the ELVs around the tackle and the maul will see a rapid return to predictable boring rugby that was spoiling the game as a spectacle.

“Instead of the free-kick, we will now see the return of the long-arm penalty, the kick to touch followed by the illegal rolling maul. At the moment we are getting about nine penalties and now we will go back to the 30-odd penalties, often following subjective calls by the referee and these often decide rugby matches.”

McIntosh admits the referees are struggling to police the breakdown.

“But, if they are in doubt, they can blow a free-kick rather than perhaps a match-deciding penalty.”

He says the principal aim was to cut down on the kicking by creating a fair contest at the breakdown and stopping the interminable rolling maul by allowing the opposition to collapse it.

“Rugby has changed dramatically over the past few decades. At one time the best teams had a pack that hunted under the blanket and were involved at the breakdown. This largely left backs facing backs in attack and defence,” he said.

“But over the years teams have committed fewer and fewer players to the breakdown, leaving the rest to string across the field in defence. And that is why we are seeing so much kicking in the modern game. Defences are so cluttered with players that the safer option is to kick and chase.”

The statistics (taken from the New Zealand-Australia Bledisloe Cup matches from 1972 to 2008) are revealing, he says.

Initially, attacking teams were committing on average four players to the breakdown but coaches were adapting and by 2004 the players competing in the tackle area had dropped to two and, by last year, one.

“This means that more forwards are out clogging up the backlines, on attack and defence, and this results in more kicking because runners found too many players in front of them. That is what we were trying to stop.”

The problem, says McIntosh, is that the IRB did not go the whole hog in bringing in the experimental laws.

“We wanted players at the breakdown to be able to use their hands to win the ball, even on the ground. Good old-fashioned rucking, the use of the boot, is no longer allowed, but we wanted to have a fair contest at the breakdown, one which would then force teams to get more players to the tackle area. This would open the game to more backplay.”

McIntosh said the Sharks’ win over the Hurricanes, with two kick-and-chase tries, highlighted the problems facing rugby.

“Grant Bashford said in The Witness this week that teams playing the most rugby [running with the ball] are in the bottom part of the log and those that kick it are at the top. Hurricanes coach Colin Cooper agreed and said his team would have to start kicking more.

“What an indictment that is of the game,” says McIntosh.

Sharks head coach John Plumtree agrees that by scrapping the tackle the game will again be more pedestrian with more penalties, more attacking lineouts and more mauling. “I think you will find a mixed reaction from coaches depending on their team’s strengths. But that is one of the tests for a coach — making sure your team can adapt to whatever the lawmakers throw at you,” he said.

McIntosh remains adamant that something has to be done, that something is indeed broken.

“That fellow called William Webb Ellis picked up a ball and ran with it, didn’t he? He didn’t kick it.”

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