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'JCBs' bulldozing art of back play into extinction

Paddy O'Brien, the International Rugby Board's referees manager, tells us that for the World Cup, affairs will be conducted by a panel of 10 referees, seven assistant referees and four television match officials.

And, O'Brien tells us: "I am confident that we are getting the approach right by penalising the clear and obvious and being stricter in the areas relating to space on the field."

To be fair, all this came from the referees manager before events percolated in last weekend's Six Nations opening exchanges -- in Rome, Romain Poite failed to penalise "the clear and obvious" to a ludicrous degree, and the day before in Cardiff George Hook, appropriately, referred to England's Johnsonian method of overcoming the Welsh, as employment of "JCBs" and not, as O'Brien was hoping, situations "relating to space on the field".

So, all the signs are that the IRB's drive to amend styles of play with the introduction of new laws is a total failure.

So much for accomplished and consistent running and passing in the back divisions. Nowadays, as the evidence of the November Tests and last weekend clearly shows, rugby now is totally dominated by the coaches and the JCBs.

Possession of the ball is now donated at the whims of the JCBs. And the ball is too often useless to midfield backs, even of the quality of a Brian O'Driscoll, because the defences are easily poised.

The tactics now are to keep the ball for short, sharp bursts by fellow JCBs. None of that nonsense about space on the field. The countries in serious preparation for the World Cup have indicated that the emphasis will be to rely on basic strengths up front. Physicality, exclusively, will rule the roost in New Zealand 2011.

The first indications of the current mindset occurred in last season's Heineken Cup when Toulouse and Biarritz, in the semi-finals, blasted Leinster and Munster out of the way like flicking at bothersome flies.

England, I strongly believe, will win the Six Nations by sheer strength. And they will hope to take on the bulk of South Africa and New Zealand in the World Cup in September-October, and they will always have Jonny Wilkinson there to drop a Ronan O'Gara-esque goal.

Remember, England haven't won much in recent years, but they have a rugby-playing population, as IRB figures confirm, almost equal to all the rest of us put together.

Ireland? And the utterly conservative Declan Kidney? It will be another World Cup failure, we simply haven't the forwards.

As for tomorrow at Lansdowne Road, all the bookies are sure the French will win? I'm not totally convinced. As has been pointed out, the French are an erratic and brilliant people, who have all the gifts -- except that of running their rugby team.

And even if they employ a few JCBs, as their scrum revealed against a heavier Scotland, they can also find some glittering chauffeur to steer a superb route.

Irish Independent