Give me strength

2008-08-05 09:10

Stuart Abbott

Friends in South Africa tell me they have spent Saturdays watching three sets of IRB laws being applied. They watch schools and club rugby where all the ELVs have been in operation, Super 14 with some of the ELVs but not others, and then Premiership or Six Nations games on TV under the 'old' laws. And on June 1, schools and clubs had to adapt to an altered set of ELVs, with significant differences to the ELV laws they had been playing.

South African rugby followers were thus obliged to adapt to a fourth set of IRB laws. Pity the poor referee having to adapt from one set of laws to another in successive games. No wonder even Andre Watson didn't get it all correct in his information circular to Saru unions - and he has refereed two Rugby World Cup finals and is the SA Manager of Referees.

To have different laws being applied in different parts of the world, as well as a variation in laws from competition to competition in the same country, can surely not be a good idea. Wouldn't it have made sense for all experimental laws to have been introduced globally to every rugby-playing country, all at the same time, by the IRB?

This is in fact the second reason for my thinking that a global season for all IRB-affiliated players would be a wise innovation. The main reason would be based around an endeavour to reintroduce strength versus strength as the rule, not the exception, in international rugby.

Except within hemispheres, where we have countries competing on equal terms in, for example, the Six Nations and Tri-Nations, how often do we have players competing against each other when similarly fresh physically and mentally? In the World Cup, yes.

Strength versus strength

On Lions tours, yes, one hopes so - but whether Ian McGeechan and Gareth Davies will have the unfettered co-operation of all four unions and all their clubs in offering next year's Lions the requisite rest before their tour of South Africa is a moot point.

Other than that, we seldom see strength versus strength. In June and November, some top players stay at home and those who do go on tour are often exhausted. If the Tests are genuine strength versus strength contests, it's more often by chance rather than through IRB design.

How about a global season, with international rest periods laid down by the IRB? The timing could be determined by whatever consensus they can reach, but they may want to look at a few weeks off before and after New Year, and perhaps time off again in mid-year.

What could also be considered along with a global season - or even without one - would be a return to the long tours which were the norm in former years. One appreciates that TV rights may be decisive in drawing up schedules, because of the income raised, but a trial period of a couple of seasons of longer tours may be feasible in drawing major TV audiences.

Lottery at the breakdown

Would an old-style All Black tour of Britain and Ireland, for example, where they play midweek games as well as Saturday matches, including Test matches against England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, not be a huge draw card? And a similar tour by the Springboks? The Lions tours to New Zealand, Australia and South Africa provide great anticipation and excitement, and I'd be surprised if other longer tours didn't raise equal interest. I'm convinced that a full-length tour of South Africa by the All Blacks would be a hit in every part of the country. And I know that my friends in New Zealand would love a long tour of their country by the Springboks.

While offering the IRB my entirely unsolicited advice, I'd be letting my old teammates down if I were not to mention the players' pet hate - the lottery at the breakdown. And whether one has been playing rugby under all the ELVs, some of the ELVs, or under the old laws, the problem remains substantial - it's the greyest of rugby's grey areas, where referees succeed only in confusing both teams in every game.

Players will tell you that the referee who is consistent in his decision-making at breakdown has not yet been born. Assessing offences at breakdown remains so subjective that more often than not, I'd wager, the referee's two touch judges (or assistant referees, if you're using the ELVs) may well have awarded the penalty the other way at any one breakdown situation.

The IRB have the duty to their players to clear up this ongoing confusion. Players do try hard not to give away penalties, but even the best players in the world get penalised while doing precisely what they've been coached to do at breakdown. The different breakdown laws and sanctions applied under the ELVs as opposed to old laws will have exacerbated the uncertainty rather than helped the situation.

On the basis of referees' decisions at breakdown, games are won and lost, players may get dropped, and coaches may lose their jobs. Of course other decisions by referees can cause the same consequences, but my point is that those are more likely to be clear-cut - it's the guess-work of the lottery aspect of the breakdown decision that needs to be rooted out of rugby.

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