Wednesday 17 January 2018

Neil Francis: Why are we kicking our game to death?

With referees laying down the law, rugby at international level is now a shambles, says Neil Francis

Piri Weepu leads
New Zealand in
the Haka prior to
last week’s RWC
semi-final against
Australia in Eden
Park
Piri Weepu leads New Zealand in the Haka prior to last week’s RWC semi-final against Australia in Eden Park
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I suppose it's like the 80-year-old boss who hired the well proportioned pretty secretary -- he is still chasing her around the office desk, he just can't remember why.

This World Cup -- for want of a better term -- was a crock of shite.

People who got up out of their beds very early in the morning to watch the festival probably just can't remember why. There was reward for the Irish fan -- the Australian and Italian games were worthy matches and worth the effort but there has been nothing for the neutral.

The knockout stages were stultifying parodies of the game. The quality has been abysmal, the skill levels awful. For the rugby fan, why would you watch the competition on television? Why, God forbid, would you travel half way around the world to watch that crap? Surely the stodge in 2007 would have told you not to go. The 2007 quarter-final in Cardiff between the All Blacks and France was the only reward we got for watching 48 games of drip-dry mediocrity.

At the time of writing, there hasn't been a decent match and I am fairly certain about this: I will stand naked on a pontoon on the Liffey making sea lion sounds catching sardines thrown by 'well-wishers' if today's final is a 10-try thriller which France win in the last second of the game.

You might not have been aware but the best game in RWC 2007 was the Japan v Canada game. It was, quite obviously, a pool game and at that stage both teams were out of the competition. An extraordinarily good game of rugby and an uninhibited showcase of how the game should be played. But it meant nothing, they were both going home the next day. Bragging rights didn't even come in to it. It was about the pure aesthetic of the game.

The point is, we didn't even get a Japan v Canada game in the 2011 competition.

Why is it that most normal rugby people divest themselves of the protective carapace of realism when it comes to judging what they have seen over the last six weeks. The soccer World Cups have been poor, but that is because most of the players have no interest in playing in it. Soccer, I find, is a boring game to watch but fundamentally the game itself, the actual mechanics of it, are sound.

Rugby now is a bottomless pool of deficiency fishing for direction and more from its so-called leaders. It has become so unedifying that you have to think hard about which players, if any, distinguished themselves. If my editor requests a RWC 2011 XV he might just end up on that pontoon as well. How many individual performances would have sparked a 10-year-old's imagination to go outside on to the park and pretend he was that player?

It is an essential truth in every sport that if the game doesn't provoke something within you well then . . .

The international version of this game is dying a slow, unperpetuated death and we have forgotten why we watch.

Far as I can remember, the attraction of the game is the flow of interplay and simplicity of the pass. What we have just observed is a game of endless kick-chase; it takes many forms but the mind-numbing predictability of it all shows you how pre-programmed all the players are.

Scrumhalves kick anywhere inside within their own 35. Blindside wingers on unemployment assistance give chase along with the odd back-row forward. They get so good at this gambit that they are encouraged to do it all the time. You can see why: if the ball is fed back to 10, very often all he makes is 10-15 metres before he gives the ball back to the opposition. It is a far greater percentage that you win the high ball coming on to it rather than the nervous intended recipient -- and a far higher percentage than trying to compete at lineout time. So keep doing it. It plays you out of your own territory and puts your opposition under pressure. Hang times. Is that where we want the game to go? Where are the incentives to run?

Two months ago, I said that the greater emphasis was on the tackle law, where the second player would have to detach and re-engage if he was involved in tackling the ball carrier. This was brought in to encourage the counter-attack. The ball carrier has some hope if he only has to deal with one tackler, but two, that's too much. This was refereed in the early part of last season but at this World Cup the breakdown has been like a Roman orgy -- anything goes. Perfectly understandable when you'd just try and kick it 60-70 metres, no point in taking a chance -- sometimes you are waiting for a long, long time for a mistake to happen.

If kicking is the first option, well then there is something fundamentally wrong with the game.

Direct and innovative thinking is required to keep forwards out of the midfield and closer to the tackle zone. Three defenders at ruck time means a dozen willing souls in the outfield and they rarely miss straight-up tackles. Trying to move this dozen around the park doesn't necessarily improve the entertainment quotient. Interminable phases don't really do it either and normally the skills break down or the attacking team runs out of support ruckers -- just kick the ball, it's the best percentage play.

It is depressing that there is a certain helplessness about the way the game is going. The last time the game needed clear direction they came up with the ELVs. Remember them? Madre Dio -- the game needed surgery and the IRB handed out plasters.

The gates are great, television numbers outstanding, merchandising and revenues up but the product stinks. It smelled bad too in 2007 and 2003. England 2015 will be just as bad -- that is if the SANZA sides bother to show up.

The only superstar to emerge from this tournament is Paddy O'Brien. Not a day goes by that his name is not mentioned. When the game is controlled and given directions by referees this is what hap

pens -- it dies because they do not understand the game, only its laws.

The eunuchs are in charge and I might be wrong but today's final could be just as undistinguished as the beauty we had in 2007 and 2003. For the schoolboys watching, go to bed if you want to dream. If you want high-grade, high-quality rugby, you are only going to get it in the Heineken Cup or the Super 15. International rugby is officially off the list.

PS: For sports people looking for employment within the sports industry, you might log on to sportsjobs.ie

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