Tuesday 21 November 2017

Neil Francis: International game stinks because it's in the toilet

If the IRB doesn't change its tune, the Heineken Cup will soon be the only game in town, says Neil Francis

Munster's Simon Zebo is tackled by Steven Lawrie of Edinburgh during their clash in Thomond Park last night. Photo: Diarmuid Greene
Munster's Simon Zebo is tackled by Steven Lawrie of Edinburgh during their clash in Thomond Park last night. Photo: Diarmuid Greene
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I think Lili von Shtupp said it best in Blazing Saddles when she told Hedley Lamarr it was all over. 'You're finished, fertig, verfallen, verlumpt, verblunget, verkackt!' I have no idea what the literal translation is but I feel it says everything about the international version of the game of Rugby Union.

Anybody who read my synopsis of the recent Rugby World Cup will not be left under any illusion of what I thought of it. The Dublin Corporation Sewage ship could not adequately describe what a crock of shite it was. The last two weekends of Heineken rugby were a stark contrast to the irredeemable gulf in quality and watchability between the very distinct and separate games of union -- namely the moribund, stagnant game of international rugby as it is currently played and the pan-European brand which is flourishing.

It has already been observed what has happened in soccer. The last three FIFA World Cups have been awful beyond words. Ninety minutes of brain-numbing tedium only occasionally enlivened by the odd penalty shoot-out which is not really soccer.

In Ireland, because we have no Champions League representatives, the armchair or travelling supporter is more or less compelled to watch Ireland play football at international level. Sometimes you just lose the will to live. Outside of Ireland most Europeans have for all intents and purpose given up on their national side if they want to be entertained and watch the Champions League instead.

The reason players have concentrated on it is because the players don't give a toss about international football, and it really shows. The jersey or patriotism doesn't do

it for footballers. The international fees are derisory and the fear of injury or fatigue will probably detract from their €100,000-per-week salaries. They don't care.

The same cannot be said for international rugby players. They do care. They are passionate about the jersey and the country, but that makes the situation all the more damning and annoying. They care and they are keen to play and win yet the way their desire manifests itself on the pitch is unappealing and unedifying to sometimes the most fervent rugby supporter.

Why don't France play like Toulouse? Why don't Ireland play like Leinster? These clubs contribute over half the starting XVs to their national sides yet when they put on their national jersey they play an extremely limited version of the game -- their form of expression strangely muted. It seems that Heineken Cup is one-day cricket and Six Nations is Test cricket.

In the recent Rugby World Cup there were fewer tries scored in the competition -- and significantly so. Even in the dangerous professional versus amateur mis-matches in the pool stages there were fewer tries. Some of you might say that this is progress for 'the minnows', some of you should go back to your padded cells.

At the business end there were fewer tries scored in this World Cup than at any other World Cup. In this World Cup there was more air-time per match than any other World Cup. Scrumhalves box-kicked the ball to such a degree that we thought we were watching golf -- hours and hours of televised Sky. In the Heineken Cup we see ball in hand, we see players put into space, we see the ball travelling to the wing, we see invention and intelligence. Same players, same referees, why is the Heineken a lot less difficult to watch?

Well, it's self-evident that a national team is stronger and Ireland pick the best players from Leinster, Munster and Ulster. More often than not defensively these players don't miss tackles, close down space relentlessly and apply pressure more rigidly than a common or garden Heineken Cup player. It goes without saying that there is less space and less time at Test level. There is also a greater pressure to win and you have fewer matches to get it right. You have to win from the off.

Is it true so that you have to play mistake-free, lowest common denominator rugby? Absolutely. Play the game in your opponents' half -- play pressure for penalties. A plausible blueprint for victory which is the only thing that counts. When the ball is not in the air, play the power game.

International packs are significantly more powerful than Heineken packs and slug it out a metre at a time.

A six-week international window lends itself to this type of rugby but in the sixth week and the last series of matches it just never seems to get any better.

A conspiracy of rugby league defence coaches holds most sway on the coaching ticket and attack coaches are silently rail-roaded into cul de sacs (Ireland have no attack coach this season). International rugby is what it is but there is no question that it has almost become unwatchable.

I am not a free marketer. I don't have confidence that the game will find its level if left to its own devices. I feel that vested interest and the pressure to win dominate the game. If most international coaching tickets were asked they'd be happy to win 1-0 and the decision to improve the watchability of the game lies with other parties. Unfortunately, at international level there are some things you cannot do.

It seems that we are powerless to stop institutionalised cheating which has become endemic, nor can we depower the game as international players are getting bigger and bigger and the temptation to play crash, bang, wallop is irresistible.

The only thing we can do is intervene and give teams and coaches the incentive to play enterprising and watchable rugby. Unfortunately, the governing body has ceded the governance and direction of the game to a former referee.

If the refs are happy with the international game as presently constituted and think it is functioning properly that is a clear sign that the game is fucked. They know the rules and regulations but nothing about the game. The surgery required to save the international game cannot come from somebody who has no notion that it is in trouble. Where else in any major international sport in the world would you let a referee dictate the direction of the game?

Paddy O'Brien has been in charge at international level for too long and look at what has happened to the game. Serious consideration should be given to replacing him.

The first thing that the IRB should do when they finish their jolly in December (Beaumont or Lapasset for president) in Los Angeles (well done boys) is address immediately the inadequacies of the game and make it more palatable to the players and more entertaining to the fans -- and do it before the Heineken becomes the only show in town.

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