In search of a beautiful game
As teams learn to play their way out of trouble, rugby is showing it can still change for the better, says Eddie Butler
A T the start of the decade that has just ended, England were the worry. And so it is that rugby, as played in and by England, sets the agenda for the new age. Wales have had their two Grand Slams in the noughties and Ireland are the force of the moment, but where we go from here depends on England.
Ten years ago, the question was posed -- with barely disguised mockery -- of Clive Woodward: 'Can you ever win the Grand Slam?' Wales, Scotland and Ireland, at various stages of the Six Nations around the turn of the millennium, were in the process of making the England coach's job an ordeal as much as a pleasure.
His answer, delivered in 2003, was an emphatic 'yes', which was the source of the concern. England trounced Ireland in 2003 to take the Slam and then travelled to New Zealand and Australia, in the summer before the World Cup, to deliver a style that left everyone scratching their heads. Now that England had finally mobilised their rugby forces, would anyone be able to live with them?
They then put aside the glamour game and won the World Cup in a manner that left everyone sending for the law-makers. To have England as the global force was one thing; to see them go up the jumper was quite another.
England's glory in 2003 set in motion the slow march towards the dreaded Experimental Law Variations (ELVs). Even though New Zealand proved -- as early as 2005 in the Tri Nations and against Woodward's Lions -- that the game could play itself out of trouble, the forces of order at the International Rugby Board had been mobilised and there was no turning them back. The ELVs, born of good intentions, were about to upset the balance of the sport.
The worst of them were snuffed out as soon as it became clear the maul was more beautiful than it had ever looked and that you couldn't simply do away with whole chunks of the sport, however aesthetically pleasing the theories appeared on the blackboard.
Rugby emerged shaken and confused from the experiment, still able to produce a series as captivating as the Lions tour of South Africa in 2009 and a campaign as dramatic as Ireland's first Grand Slam for 61 years, but prone to the paralysis that gripped it at the start of this season.
The decade was heading towards depressing victory for the tackler who could dominate the whole breakdown area and the kicker who had only to obey the most unsophisticated instruction to boot the ball anywhere.
Things had become so bad that the law-makers were again about to be summoned. You could sense the zealots dusting off their plans to do away with anything that made the ball invisible for more than a fraction of a second. Mad eyes were starting to glow in the dark. I jest not, for I have spent time in the company of administrators who will not rest easy until the rolling maul has become extinct.
In the nick of time, the game in England has responded -- and it seems the order to boot the ball anywhere, rather than risk being turned over in the tackle, is but a blip, a knee-jerk reaction to a change in emphasis. If the tackler who can bounce back to his feet has been given a special power, there is no need to rewrite the law-book. The answer lies with the coaches, clever people who, for once, have been caught out, a step behind a trend, rather than one in front.
Their solution is to provide more protection around the ball-carrier. Just as the return of the rolling maul meant clusters of forwards had to remain on collective duty close to the line-out, so clumps of players have to be vigilant around the tackle area.
Groups of players are good for the game -- as essential to the release of the solo runner and the standing ovation from a full house as a sweetly timed pass and a carefully run angle.
It was not so long ago that we were talking about the field being too small nowadays for the professional game. Now that large numbers of players have to inhabit small pockets of space, the congestion is easing. The signs are encouraging that rugby is playing itself out of trouble.
Now all we need is another change of emphasis and a return to some healthy rucking. Feet are more important than hands at the breakdown, generating quicker release of the ball. Speed of delivery is the next problem for the coaches to solve. We are but one swift action away from a beautiful game.
How to stop England was the theme of the last decade; saving the game there is the project of the moment.