IRB only have themselves to blame
December 16, 2009
South Africa's Morne Steyn puts boot to ball during this year's Tri-Nations clash with Australia in Cape Town © Getty Images
It was all done with such good intentions but what a mess the International Rugby Board has now got itself into.
A massive PR exercise accompanied the last raft of law changes with Experimental Law Variations being heralded as the way forward but they are now running scared. The ELVs were supposed to be the answer to all those critics who said law changes had not been tried before they were tested but there were simply far too many and the consequences were so far reaching that virtually all of them were being vilified long before decision time. The 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' brigade thought they had won the day but the changes in emphasis, particularly surrounding the way the game is refereed at the breakdown, has had a massive effect.
We now have a game where kicking has become so prevalent you sometimes think you've wandered into a game of Australian Rules by mistake and that is because the balance has swung much too far towards the defending side. Everybody is now coming to the conclusion it is better not to have possession which is a catastrophe for a game which used to be so positive - where the whole art was to find ways of breaking through even the most organised defences.
Yet - and to me this is almost criminal - instead of admitting that in rugby terms the warning signs are as bad as global warming they have buried their heads and declared that nothing will be done until after the next Rugby World Cup in 2011. I am not for one moment suggesting the IRB should introduce another raft of changes but a little bit of tweaking to undo the unwanted effects of the law changes they have endorsed would have immediate and beneficial results.
It is now a total lottery as to whether the tackled player is penalised for not releasing or the tackler is penalised for not rolling away. If neither is penalised there are usually hands on the ball to the extent that possession is slowed to the point where it is unusable and the attacking team has to start all over again.
This is made worse by the 'new' ruling that the tackler is not offside even he is on the wrong side of the ball. Providing he is on his feet he can play the ball from where he stands even if that is beyond the tackler. Twice in recent weeks I have seen tacklers protesting their innocence when they have been penalised because they have regained their feet and picked up the ball even though they are at the back of what would have been a ruck in the old days. That is how ludicrous it has become.
The solution is simple - just outlaw playing the ball if you are on the wrong side regardless of whether or not you are the tackler and I would guarantee quick, clean, attacking ball on at least a dozen more occasions in every game.
Richie McCaw, George Smith and Heinrich Brussow would not send me a Christmas card but the rest of the rugby world would say a massive thank you. They are all great rugby players but they get away with murder and ruin games as spectacles - not their fault they are just playing the laws and to a certain extent the referee who, by the way, has an impossible job.
The moment there is a tussle over the ball on the ground the game becomes static and players spread out across the field in a defensive line just like rugby league. When the ball is eventually extracted from the base of what some people (mostly referees who are actually instructed to use the term) laughingly still call a ruck, there is no room to attack at all.
And this all came about because the IRB's Laws Committee (or Laws Project Group or whatever) had decided in a former moment of madness that the game was too loaded in favour of the attacking side.
Recently released statistics show what a short-sighted decision that was. Most tries were scored after two or three phase plays. In most cases a team failed to score if the defence could make them play through more phases so the solution - to introduce more competition at the breakdown - was a nonsense.
There used to be around 50 breakdowns per game (there are now three times as many) and there were usually upwards of a dozen players involved at every breakdown. There is now quite often just one defender actually engaged with the opposition so it's obvious why there is no longer any room on a rugby field. But the most frightening statistics are the ones relating to South Africa in the past few months. The IRB Review confirms the worst.
In the first Test against the Lions they made only 49 passes. In the Tri-Nations they made fewer passes (only 43 in one game) and kicked more than any other team yet they won the Tri-Nations and the series against the Lions. That should have had alarm bells ringing so loudly the IRB felt compelled to act. Instead they voted to dither while our beautiful game is being burned perhaps beyond recognition.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to Scrum.com