Saturday 17 March 2018

Breakdown's killing fields have become law unto themselves

Referees are not doing enough to ensure that players going off their feet illegally are spotted and punished, says Brendan Fanning

It was no surprise that the IRB should lead their analysis of the World Cup, issued last week, with the wondrous march of the Tier 2 nations. Never mind the Arab Spring, marvel instead at the defiance of the Tier 2 nations of the rugby world.

The stats were right there on page one. In the first weekend of the tournament the four games between big uns and little uns provided an average margin of defeat of 20 points, a great improvement on the 41 and 45 for the 2007 and 2003 tournaments respectively. Great beaming smiles lit up IRB land.

Moreover, the minnows had kept swimming right up to the end, rather than be drowned half way through.

Then came the bad news: thereafter the gaps in these games virtually doubled. So we were back climbing steep hills again. There is a simple reason for this: the IRB through Mark Egan's department do some very useful work in the weaker nations, and if they were chasing a stationary target their progress would be dramatic. They aren't. Virtually no one stands still, so the catch-up needs a turbo boost.

"The problem for the Tier 2 countries was maintaining that level of competitiveness as the tournament progressed -- and this defines the challenge, what changes need to be made, what programmes need to be developed, what resources need to be utilised to maintain the improvement that so clearly manifested itself in RWC 2011," the IRB's analysis concludes.

Not that clearly lads. Specifically the weaker nations need games. Of course they need human and financial resources to improve their infrastructure, but central to the whole business of improvement is an enhanced fixture list.

And that requires co-operation from those who have no interest whatsoever in the improvement of Tier 2, namely Tier 1. They are too busy trying to stay ahead of the curve. And how that direction has changed since, for example, 1995.

Back then, when Nelson Mandela was doing the unthinkable and trying on a Springbok shirt for size, rugby was a set-piece game driven by kicking. Twelve years later, in France, the first part had reduced dramatically, but the second bit -- hoofing the ball in the air -- became more popular as the margins decreased. The stats from this year's tournament tell us that, thankfully, the endless kicking duels are less frequent, largely because some clever clogs in the IRB refereeing fraternity spotted that the simple expedient of whistling up players for chasing kicks from an offside position would lessen the attractiveness of kicking in the first place. Well done.

So now we have a game where not only is the ball in play 33 per cent more than in 1995, but other changes include a 50 per cent increase in the number of passes, a doubling of the number of rucks and mauls, and a reduction in scrums of 58 per cent, and lineouts of 54 per cent. Sounds great doesn't it -- all this ball whizzing about the place?

Of course it's not that pretty a picture. The scrum is a disfigurement which gets uglier the higher you go in the game. And with all the tackles/rucks (it's remarkable how much time coaches spend on the set-piece, and its set-plays, when the breakdown is where it's at) referees have been overloaded in their decision-making tasks in a complex area.

We wonder then why they fall down so often in its simplest calculation, spotting a player going off his feet at the tackle to either poach the ball, or to protect it from being poached. This is as easy to understand in law as it is to spot in real time. And it is a far greater blight on the game than the collapsed scrummage, simply because it happens much more often.

Recently, we referred some footage to Paddy O'Brien, the IRB's refs manager, for his opinion. As it happens it was the 41 Munster phases against Northampton in the Heineken Cup. We suggested the sequence should never have got beyond infancy so blatant was John Hayes' illegal sealing off of the ball. In fairness to him, he took the point, but added that this whole area is much improved. Evidently it isn't. When we suggested that his failure to effect sufficient positivity here should cost him his job he asked that any future queries relating to Heineken Cup games be referred to Donal Courtney, the ERC refs manager. Fair enough.

Seeing as the email from Paddy O'Brien was copied to Courtney we thought it best to let it rest a week or two. That would be up next weekend, after the first of the back-to-back rounds in Europe. On the evidence of the last round, Courtney -- who is a newcomer compared to O'Brien -- has his hands full. We read somewhere recently what a fine job he is doing with refs in the Heineken. Hello? The jury hasn't even been empanelled.

It would be great to think that he can make himself useful in this area, so that by the time the pool stages are complete we are seeing the observance of one of rugby's core principles: a fair contest for possession. Getting the game right is every bit as important as getting Tier 2 nations up to speed. When you see stats showing a spike in penalties for ball-killing then you'll know that the game is really coming alive, no matter what level you are at.

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