Christmas Day – the birth of Christ – was observed recently. Christians the world over have long since relented to the unstoppable tide of commerce. People long ago gave up the notion that it was a day of cognisance and respect for the arrival of the saviour. They have now summarily accepted that it is a crass celebration of consumerism and an orgiastic sump of materialism and more or less went with the flow of how this moment in the calendar is now treated diametrically in opposition to what it should be. It's a Hallmark holiday. I'm not particularly religious, but I do strenuously object to taking the Christ out of Christmas. It is a Christian occasion. I don't see why I should have to countenance the term Happy Holidays or Happy Xmas just so a small minority in our land or any western country might not be offended. The real spirit of the occasion has been corrupted and as we engage in a race to the bottom I wondered how long will it be. Driving along in my car the other day I realised we are not too far from it.
I was in the States recently and while trying to tune into something listenable came across a Gangsta Rap station playing a little Christmas ditty. The chorus line went a little something like this: "dis all came around 'cos the mutha f***er was born in a crib in bedleeham, yeah in bedleeham". I think the term we are looking for to explain the inexplicable is 'freedom of expression' – artistic or otherwise. I'm sure 2,000 years ago if the saviour realised that he would be venerated in such a fashion he might not have bothered. An absolute corruption.
Onto matters more mundane. If William Webb Ellis could look back and see how his game is being venerated he might think why did he bother his arse to pick up the ball and run with it. Now I'm pretty sure that rugby union back then was faction fighting with pigskin but the fundamental still applies – you run with the ball. If you look at the game now, that fundamental has been corrupted.
I met a Yank at a bar recently. From the size of me he reckoned that I played or had played ball. We reached common ground, talked about the NFL, about who is going to make the play-offs and then the usual differences between rugby and American football. I wasn't sure whether he'd even seen a game of rugby. So the pathetic idealist in me tried to explain lofty notions of wavy lateral motion, hands across a flowing backline etc. After a few minutes he said, "Yeah I seen that, you kick the ball in the air and chase it. Youze guyze have a punting team on the field all of the time. [An NFL team have four downs or attempts to make 10 yards and go again – if they fail, they punt on the fourth down and chase the kick.] At least we play football for the first three downs."
The guy was right. The ball spends more time in the air than it does in the hand. In the recent 'epic' against South Africa there were over 60 tactical kicks in an 86-minute game. That's a lot of air time.
No point in giving out to or about the IRB about the state of affairs, in fact Happy Christmas to you, you useless bastards. They have actually decided not to change any law for at least two years.
Back in 2007 they got together a reasonably sexy panel of former coaches and rugby intellects including the highly respected Rod MacQueen, Ian McIntosh and Pierre Villepreux but excluded Paddy O'Brien, the IRB's ping-meister supreme. They came up with the utterly useless ELVs, a knee-jerk reaction to ploughing amongst other things. (Ploughing is a Munster-like form of playing 20 or 30 recycles more or less along the same plain, going nowhere and designed primarily to wind the clock down.) While the game needed innovation, incentivisation and purposeful direction, it looked like Coco, Bozo and Krusty got a gallon of Scotch on board and came up with this irrelevance. When the game was drowning, they threw a towel at it.
The only thing of meaning in it was that you could now legally collapse a maul – a very dangerous thing to do. The players had been collapsing it well before that introduction of the ELVs and since this ELV was rejected they are still collapsing them. It still seems legal because the referees are not penalising it.
How do we stop the kicking, particularly the ping-pong? You have to incentivise and penalise in correct measure the kicker and the team to keep the ball in hand. Before you do that, you have to get things right on the ground first. Rugby is too defensive and the current rules suit the team without the ball. The first obvious thing is the maul: referee it properly or forget about it. I'm not going to give it any more coverage than I already have at this stage.
I think the team tackle, the high/low tackle, the tag tackle, whatever you want to call it, has to be penalised. There is no way you can stop it, it's a part of the game now. I don't mean give a penalty but the massed defence should carry a tariff because offensive runners are quite often over-powered by sheer weight of numbers, can't take the tackle on their terms and very often can't recycle or off-load efficiently or at all. The odds are stacked against the ball carrier or the offensive team and so the only way to even things up is to disallow the defence from competing for that ball once the player has gone to ground. More often than not the defensive team will have gained the advantage by knocking the ball carrier back. Simple dynamics of fair play and the chance for the attack to continue without fear of turnover.
I think another way of disempowering defences is to stop the tackler competing. Very often a ball carrier is tackled and the tackler – usually from behind – manages to effect the tackle, get back on his feet, get back into an on-side position and legally compete for the ball, all literally in one action. It is bewildering. The line-breaker/ball carrier has enough to deal with without having to cope with a double-jobbing defensive player. Stop the tackler competing for ball with a penalty.
I have a hit-list of number sevens that are either currently playing or played in my time. I don't think pesticide is a crime – I'd do the lot of them for free. The next suggestion is wholly unrealistic and unfeasible. Thought should be given to the subject of only allowing open-side flankers to play 50 minutes a game. If referees enforced the yellow card properly this would be all those f***ers would be allowed to play anyway. Think of how much a game would free up if these game-wreckers were off the paddock for 30 minutes.
The term "a good shoeing" should be dusted down and inserted into the statute books. The head area is sacrosanct, but anywhere else is fair game. It's amazing how many fellas lie on the deck on the wrong side of the ball, stick their hands in the air and give the ref a heart-rending look as if to say, "My big toe is caught in the ruck and I will be rolling away shortly as soon as our defence is in play and, anyway, you're not going to do anything about it really, are you?". It's all about self regulation. Cynical play deserves a good shoeing.
Referees are blind to it and it would be just amazing to see how quickly ball comes from the ruck when those fellas get a shoeing. The nanny state seems to have taken over the game. Like the man says, it ain't tiddlywinks.
Once the tackle/ruck zone has been expedited then you go and incentivise the ball carrier and penalise the kicker.
I think Graham Henry's notion that if a ball is caught on the full then it's a scrum back is a great idea. It means that aimless kicking is over. Over-cooked and unchased garryowens are a thing of the past. It would force a kicker to think differently, even kick along the ground which would make the game exciting.
When a kick is put through and not caught on the full the returner has to be incentivised to run back. How about a simple law that the returner can only be tackled by one player and there can be no contest for the ball in the initial contact. Thereafter it is a fair contest for the ball from the next phase of play. It gives a huge advantage to a counter-attacking side and would rid the game of ping-pong which is killing it.
Simon Shaw was almost beatified for stating in his autobiography that the game was breeding "gym monkeys not footballers". That was the key point that the spin-meisters put through at the launch. What an interesting book that will be. Of course he is right, but the game will continue going the way it is going. Arm-wrestlers over artisans, power before precision, farmhands before footballers. The object of the exercise is to bring ping-pong to a minimum. My suggestions are more than plausible for a solution but if the powerbrokers don't understand the problem, then the principle of the game will remain corrupted until they do.