Extra space should give runners licence to thrill
Stricter application of offside laws will make for a more exciting spectacle this season, says Brendan Fanning
The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted that the 12-month countdown to the World Cup starts on Thursday. We don't know if there will be any fanfare or fireworks but you can be sure that in Declan Kidney's diary it gets a special entry.
And if you were sharp enough to pick up on that date, then equally it won't have escaped you that from what we've seen down under this summer, and in pre-season (and the French Top 14) up here, there is an enthusiasm about the place that RWC 2011 will be an altogether more watchable affair than 2007.
To recap: in France three years ago it wasn't just a miserable experience for everyone in the Ireland camp, it was grim for anyone who wanted more than kick and chase from their rugby. Since then we've had the ELV mini-era, followed by law rulings and tweaks and twists to bring us to where we are now -- which is a fairly positive state.
Why so? Largely it seems because of the simple expedient of referees getting tough on players who chase kicks from an offside position. This practice had been rendering the chances of a counter-attack non-existent. Suddenly the illegal chasers are being stopped in their tracks, and the pay-off comes with some space. Not open prairies, but enough room to encourage defenders who collect the ball deep to have a go at running it back.
This is good. And if you have a back three who can step and sprint as well as kick, then it might be very good. Ireland's experience in New Zealand in June reinforced the premium now on broken field runners who can leave people for dead. This is not going to lessen the importance of being able to kick the ball back accurately -- for it's off loose kicks that counter-attacks will be launched -- but it strengthens the case for getting the likes of a Luke Fitzgerald into that position as often as possible, despite his wretched showing in Firhill on Friday night.
This is currently how New Zealand are operating. Two years ago, for example, they were in a bit of a state with a lineout that was a joke and a coaching combo that was under huge pressure after their own World Cup shambles the year before. It didn't prevent them coming up here and winning four from four in November of that year, but comparatively they are streets ahead now. They use Dan Carter to kick long and accurately and if the response isn't on the money, they have an array of counter-attackers who will charge the full price.
If you combine that with their excellence at the breakdown then they have loads of ball to play with. And it's at the breakdown where we are told the next shift is coming in rugby. Much of last season was dominated by debates over refereeing the tackle area. Still it is a minefield, but we are beginning to see teams driving beyond the ball rather than squatting over it like hens.
Typically the All Blacks are doing it better than anybody. The incentive in continuing it however is that referees have to be very aggressive in policing the back foot of the ruck, and we are assured that at last they are being told to turn up the heat on this. Well, assured is perhaps too strong a description. We have long since lost faith in the IRB's Paddy O'Brien to get his referees picking up the same manual let alone being on the same page. So we'll have to wait and see how quickly it catches on here, though the signs from down south are that between Super 14 and Tri Nations it has taken a while to get it right.
For some reason in recent seasons dealing with the back foot of the ruck has been ignored in favour of rendering increasingly technical what happens at the preceding tackle. But the promise now is that we will have space freed up by referees penalising players who chase from ahead of the ball, along with more room on the gainline because players will be forced to observe it.
A classic example of how badly we need this came last week in the magnificent Stade Yves du Manoir where Montpelier were beating Toulouse in the Top 14. The home side were attacking and making reasonable progress through the phases when they were picked off for an intercept by Fijian Vilimoni Delasau. It finished, predictably, under their own sticks. It wasn't so much that Delasau was offside but those inside him were, which is what forced Montpelier into making the mistake of letting it go that wide at all.
On Friday night in Firhill, we got further examples. Forget for a moment how Leinster ended up going from a handy lead to a situation where they needed Isa Nacewa to nail a drop goal to salvage two points, and look at the circumstances of the build-up. Back foot defence? Glasgow were so far offside at so many points in their defensive line that it made a mockery of the notion of having an offside line at all.
If it was all too much for referee Tim Hayes, whatever happened to the artists formerly known as touch judges? They could not be less effective in so fundamental an aspect of the game if they tried, which is ironic given that they are now credited with being assistant referees. So start giving some assistance. Did neither of them think of telling Mr Hayes that Duncan Weir's drop goal needed to touch a Leinster player in between the free kick and the ball going over the bar?
Even though it was Leinster's first day on the Magners job, you suspect that result will come back to haunt them. An almost equally understrength Glasgow were so bad in the first half you could have forgiven coach Sean Lineen for doing a bunk at the break. And similarly Joe Schmidt might have slipped out the back door when his side -- starting with John Fogarty, who gave a whole new meaning to the term 'impact sub' -- managed to flush their game down the pan in the second half. Nowhere are Leinster more imbalanced than at half-back where they have three quality number nines and only one 10 -- Jonny Sexton -- who covers all the bases.
Ulster's plight is similar. David Humphreys has said that Ruan Pienaar has been recruited as a scrum-half, the position which Humphreys considers all-important in the modern game, but in Paul Marshall he already has the best passing scrum-half in the land. And at out-half Niall O'Connor gave no indication against the Ospreys on Friday that the inconsistencies of his game last season have been sorted.
It was unusual to have so big a game first up. If Ulster had lost against a Welsh side short half their starters, it would have created doubt. Winning, and applying themselves so single-mindedly, was huge for their supporters, but until they get real reliability into their 10 shirt they have hard times ahead.
For the rest of us we can hope for better rugby when the referees and their assistants go with the flow and free up some more space.