Celebration of mediocrity to leave bad taste in mouth
Scrums, box-kicking, suffocating defence and drop goals will dominate World Cup, writes Neil Francis
I went on a first date with this girl years ago. It didn't go well. In fact it was a disaster. I didn't get around to open the car door for her. I suppose I was more occupied with swimming back to the surface . . .
Ireland's first date is less than a week away; the match against the Yanks is unlikely to be a good occasion, low in everything from entertainment quotient to the rudiments of a competitive and meaningful test. Ireland will win, but the pervasive malaise and the continuously high error account will, like a bad smell, follow them around the pool stages for the coming month.
I can't see one decent competitive game of rugby in Pool C and for the crucial Ireland versus Italy game, I would prefer to spend the day, if I could, removing loose asbestos from industrial installations with my bare hands rather than watch the travesty that is going to be visited upon us in the final game in Dunedin.
It's not just Ireland, all the other pools will be just as bad. Dangerous mis-matches between professional top seeds and amateur wannabes. Stagnant mistake-avoidance spectacles between the top two seeds in the group which invariably goes to the top seed. It is all so predictable.
One decent quarter or semi and then, like the last three finals, we have to endure the unendurable, a game of stultifying and crushing boredom hijacked by an agenda-driven referee who will ensure that any spark of imagination is swiftly extinguished. Not that any player will defy his coach's dictat of safety first or trying something that colours the palate anything other than grey.
The IRB, useless bastards that they are, have more interest in telling you that the event is the third biggest sporting occasion on the planet. They will tell you how many corporate partners they have, how many countries it will be broadcast in and that ticket sales, advertising revenues and gate numbers were all up on four years ago. What they can't tell you is why the product stinks. They have spent so much time internationalising Rugby Union and ensuring that television, as in all professional sports, dictates how, when and where, to put a huge emphasis on making it television-friendly that they have forgotten the fundamentals.
The game is unattractive to watch in most cases. Bad soccer (last Friday's match) is truly awful to watch, but bad rugby is only one neighbourhood away.
The Heineken Cup, a provincial competition, manages to produce games that are extraordinary -- games that defy expectation, occasions that quicken the pulse, sensational comebacks, heart-stopping finishes, games that can be wildly unpredictable that can change on one inexplicable turn of events. That is what sustains that tournament. The international version which sometimes includes the Tri Nations is formulaic, possession-orientated, defence-dominated and criss-crossed with a malign choreography of yawn inducing pre-planned phases that most of the combatants have neither the accuracy nor skill to execute properly on a sustained basis. The classic game, the one that almost leaves you in a state of euphoria, is a fluke, it's a one-off. Lest ye forget that the winners of those great games rarely can repeat the dose in the next round.
High on the list of imperatives in Test rugby is the ability to neutralise the opposition. It is also a matter of regret that systematic cheating has become ingrained in nearly every squad and there is no notion of guilt, it is seen as a badge of honour. I had always thought that what honour remained in the game differentiated rugby players from some of the other professional sports where there is no ethic or sporting conscience. Some of what goes on now in the international game has a whiff of El Hadji Diouf about it.
Nowhere is this more tellingly demonstrated than at scrum time. You will, even if you only watch 15 games in this tournament, be so sick of hearing crouch, touch, pause, engage. You will hear a lot of it because the weather will be poor in New Zealand, particularly on the south island. The messing that goes on between front-rows to the detriment of the greater good of the game, and indeed to the paying public, is annoying in the extreme.
The very notion that one referee will take a second longer than another referee between the pause and the engage means that an attacking side, who have been pressurising their opponents for a while, will have a short arm against them for simply mis-timing the hit.
It is just unworkable as they attempt to negotiate this unwieldy address. The scrums still collapse, there are still interminable resets and there is justifiable fury from one team as a referee blatantly gets the call wrong on a subject that he knows nothing about. Meanwhile, the natural flow and grace of the game goes for a Burton.
Nobody wants to watch scrums, nobody wants to hear "crouch, touch, pause, and engage", and the IRB had over a year to dispense with it but chose not to deal with it. It will be the epitaph of RWC 2011.
Apart from the scrum, what other trends will make for a less edifying spectacle than usual?
Only very recently, teams evaluated their scrumhalf on the basis of how good his pass off both hands was. A break, the facility for bringing his back-row into the game and an ability to defend were secondary. Now the primary function for scrumhalves is can he box-kick? Scrumhalves box-kick off every phase, it's a more sanitised form of ping-pong as the quality of the kick and the readiness of the chaser is so precise, that there's usually a definitive conclusion to the act.
If all the hang time and scurrying up the tramlines by crazed wingers eluded you and that seems to be wingers' primary job -- chasing box- kicks -- well know this: Will Genia, in the last Tri Nations game in Brisbane box-kicked 14 times, that is a phenomenal amount of kicking the ball away, particularly from a team that is known as a running side. Fourie du Preez kicked the same number when South Africa beat the All Blacks in Durban, Ricky Wigglesworth box-kicked a paltry 10 times against Ireland. Piri Weepu and Eoin Reddan box-kicked seven and four times respectively. You don't have to be an honours class graduate from MIT to divine that the halves who box-kicked the least ended up on the losing side. Woohoo let's just change it to the Box Kick Cup 2011, we'll all be talking about hang times and what a chase a certain winger put in on one of those box-kicks in a few weeks time.
You are probably also noting that the incentives to counter-attack introduced at the start of last season to encourage back threes to run ball back as opposed to kicking the ball in the air, have seriously declined. The emphasis on the tackle law has now been ignored and runners are being turned over behind their lines as a consequence. It has become too dangerous to counter-attack and as a result there has been a gradual increase in the amount of ping-pong we are seeing which will come to the fore, particularly in the business end of this World Cup as sides, too frightened to counter-attack, just aimlessly kick the ball into the air.
Yes folks, it's going to be ping-pong city. The world-class back-rowers Pocock and McCaw are making up to 16 tackles a game and when these two make tackles, pretty much everything stops at the breakdown. The statistic that everybody remembers from the World Cup in France was the number of tackles Thierry Dusautoir made in the match against the All Blacks (29); if that is the most memorable thing about the last World Cup, does it not tell you where the game is going?
As a consequence of this defensive magnificence, I was greatly encouraged to see that Quade Cooper and Johnny Wilko have been out practising their drop goals on a new regimen based on the understanding that they see the tight games being decided by drop goals.
Yes indeed, scrums, box-kicking, suffocating defence and drop goals. More and more this tournament is about celebrating mediocrity. I am right you know, this World Cup will be about paucity of tries, poverty of thought and piss poor rugby.
Life is not measured in the number of breaths we take, but by the number of moments which take our breath away. The next six weeks we can all breathe easy.
Sunday Indo Sport