Tony Ward: 10 things I'd like to see change or develop in rugby this season
On Sunday I was privileged to be part of a Croke Park full house that witnessed one of the great Gaelic football matches of this or any other generation.
For all the doom and gloom surrounding our national games in recent times, the semi-finals in both codes this summer have thrown up some absolute sizzlers.
Despite the imposition of claustrophobic tactical systems, when players and coaches want to unleash the shackles, anything is possible.
Rugby, similarly, has been caught in a fear-driven vice-grip. Yet as New Zealand continually demonstrate and Connacht showed when delivering the Pro12 title, where coaches trust and prepare accordingly, talented players will deliver.
That said, there are certain aspects in need of address, from World Rugby down. I won't be overly negative at the start of what promises to be another exciting season but here in no particular order are a few thoughts on changes and developments I'd like to see.
1. Fair scrum feed
Even the late Steve Jobs would have struggled to crack this one, but let's start with the scrum-half putting the ball down the middle.
If that happened, hookers would be encouraged to rediscover the long-lost art of striking, and the attacking side could learn the real logic behind channelling ball at varying pace.
As of now it's generally ball into the second-row, resulting in the ball sitting static until one or other forward unit shunts the other back.
Former Ireland coach Mick Doyle got it right all those years ago when he described the purpose of the scrum as a means for restarting the game. Somewhere in the transition between amateur and pro, that objective has got lost.
Why not award a penalty against the side putting the ball in when the hooker fails to strike?
2. Cut Time-wasting
I risk losing my few remaining forward friends, but why oh why is the clock allowed continue ticking at 'scrum time'?
I am referring to the reset that follows the almost inevitable collapse, particularly late in the game when neither pack is remotely close to the scrummaging unit that started.
It is an unadulterated bore, turning fans off by the lorry-load and being used cynically to run the clock down.
3. No superstar refs
On the back of the general hold-ups in the game - particularly the scrummaging mess - previously innocuous referees have become superstars, and by God do some of them milk it.
The ideal ref provides minimal talk and maximum control. Less talk, sensible advantage interpretation, better game.
4. Touch judges earning their corn
Is it too much to ask the men who run the line to patrol events beyond the ball and outside the referee's line of vision?
I am thinking of dirty play off the ball, off-side infringing, forward passing, off-side from the kick-off (never called back) etc.
I don't have an issue with the officials going upstairs, to make certain, given the ease of access to modern technology, in relation to a scoring moment or movement, but further outfield it's time for their assistants to earn their corn.
5. Curb dreaded maul
Forwards love it, but for backs and new rugby fans, the maul is the ultimate bore.
Penalty awarded, kick to the corner, pushover try, puke rugby.
I hate the maul as a try-scoring tactic, because under current laws it is virtually impossible to defend.
How can seven forwards (plus the odd back) taking out the opposition in front of the ball carrier be deemed legal, yet a crossover of any description (even without contact) in broken play is blown up by the referee? What warped logic and ridiculous laws.
And in terms of defending it, what pray tell is dangerous about pulling a maul down? I have never seen a player injured in a deliberately collapsed maul.
6. End All Black hoodoo
In November we get two bites at the All Black cherry, one on neutral territory in Chicago, the other a week later on our home patch.
Of course, we are not remotely close to the world champions at this point in time. Nobody can claim to be in that bracket, but some day, one day we are finally going to beat New Zealand.
And next to making a World Cup semi-final, I can't think of a bigger prize, not even another Grand Slam.
Joe Schmidt is without doubt the best coach we have ever had, and the New Zealander's professionalism far outweighs his patriotism in pursuit of this goal.
7. Sort out Italian conundrum
I would dearly love to see Conor O'Shea (surely a future Ireland coach in the making) and Steve Aboud perform minor miracles with Italian rugby.
At the moment, Zebre and Treviso's presence in the Pro12 is unjustified, never mind their place in the Champions Cup.
I supported the Italian entrance into the Six Nations and Celtic League but over the last 16 years they have lost their way badly, despite the odd Six Nations win - and both competitions have been the losers as a result.
8. France find their flair
I would love to see the French reassess the current state of their game and dig out some dusty old tapes of Serge Blanco, Philippe Sella, Jean Baptiste Lafond, Patrice Lagisquet, Franck Mesnel et al and use them as the basis for their game-plan.
I can't think of anything sadder then France's demise on the back of the Top 14 lunatic asylum.
Closer to home, I hope Rassie Erasmus proves to be the coaching inspiration he looks like he could be for Munster. Irish and European rugby needs Munster, with a heaving Thomond Park, back at the top table.
And as for Connacht? Just keep the magic going Pat, with sensible and exciting winning rugby as it was always meant to be played.
9. Don't ignore the Irish abroad
It might not be overly convenient but when players, like coaches, make the sacrifice and effort to develop their career abroad, then it should be an equal playing field for international selection.
All things being equal, I understand why Schmidt would opt for home-based players, but when they are not equal, then out of sight should never be out of mind.
10. Don't forget Club rugby
I appeal yet again to the IRFU to prioritise club rugby, particularly the AIL.
There has to be room for a top-class semi-professional division, embracing Academy, fringe provincial players and emerging club players.
Give me a semi-professional All-Ireland League Division 1A ahead of the British & Irish Cup every time.
Beyond that, I'd keep Division 1B as it is, but with provincial leagues below, with the capacity for promotion depending on ambition of the clubs.
PS To so many of my playing contemporaries and friends who are taking up presidential positions for the coming season, have a great one.
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