WITH the greatest year in our rugby history just ended, wouldn't it be lovely to assume everything in the rugby garden was rosy? However, just for a minute, let's leave aside the Grand Slam, Six Nations, Triple Crown, Heineken Cup and Magners League triumphs and take a look instead at the things that continue to irk. And, no, we won't even mention the crisis the club game is facing.
As the game is fundamentally about primary possession, let us start with the set- piece.
The line-out, to be fair, is in pretty good nick. Watch old footage on TG4's Rugbai Gold or ESPN Classic and, if nothing else, it brings home the awful mess the line-out once was. Now it is clear and well organised. Yes, I accept possession goes largely to the throwing side, but that is as it should be and, to the best of my playing knowledge and sadly fading memory, is generally how it always was. Why else had we hookers, second-rows and the odd back or front-row forward, whether off the top or on the peel, in secret conclave working that pre-match Da Vinci Code.
Intelligent, athletic forwards with flexible assistance can still turn over possession out of touch. A ball taken against the throw leaves enough room, even by today's claustrophobic standards, for invention along the line.
No, for me, the first constant nightmare is the scrum. Even if the dark art of scrummaging is your thing, the time has surely come to to find a new, less taxing hobby, say for example stamp collecting (with the utmost respect to my philatelic friends).
I talk to many highly decorated front-row forwards, young and not so young, and one thing on which they are all agreed is that the once noble art of scrummaging has long become a huge turn-off. By and large, I haven't the faintest notion as to who is at fault when a scrum goes down. Neither, I can assure you, have the players closest to the action, so what chance have referees or their assistants?
Show me a referee who knows what he is pinging at scrum time and I will show you a rugby genius. Sadly in the search for front-row safety (and who can argue with that aspiration) our scrums are more unstable than ever. I don't know about you, but personally the constant drone of "crouch, touch, pause, engage" coming from the match official from first minute to last, drives me to distraction. And, God, do some referees love the sound of their own voice.
A former Lions touring colleague of mind, Johnny Beattie, has made what I believe to be a most sensible suggestion that perhaps the time has come to revisit the old technique whereby the three lines of the scrum would bind in stages. It can still be done quickly, but instead of "crouch, touch, pause ... etc" give us "front, second, back (then for the scrum-half), release." Whatever your take, all the current evidence points to a less stable scrum than ever.
Then we come to the kicking. Aerial ping- pong -- or whatever you care to call it. Former Clongowes and Lansdowne out-half Greg Dilger -- a master kicker in his day -- made a very valid observation to me recently, in relation to Jonathan Sexton's debut performance against Fiji at the windswept, rain-soaked RDS, saying it was wonderful for all aspiring young kickers to witness a present-day player trusting his kicking skill to overcome the elements.
Specifically, he was referring to Sexton's confident trust in his ability to spiral kick out of hand. By contrast, most kickers today kick end over end. Yes, it allows greater margin for error, but, as one brought up watching Barry McGann exact maximum distance with maximum skill out of hand I, like Dilger, was most reassured to witness young Sexton's kicking confidence.
The reverse of that is, of course, fear and most of today's aimless kicking is born out of just that. Fear of being caught in isolated possession, given the massive advantage currently with the tackler at the breakdown. We used to joke about kick ahead ... any head, but now it literally means kick ahead, anywhere.
It truly is the bugbear of the modern game. Too much time spent in the gym -- Simon Shaw's 'gym monkeys' reference was surely one of the most telling quotes of the year -- means too little time spent on the training paddock, developing the skills of evasive running and kicking with purpose.
Former IRFU fitness advisor and conditioning coach Mike McGurn is another to restore my faith when blasting rugby's obsession with gym bulking and producing rugby robots at the expense of developing further game management skills. Winning should be about being the most skilful -- NOT the most powerful.
I was brought up on the principle of protecting possession. When you put boot to ball it was with the primary intention of getting it back. If you were struggling out of touch in a particular game you kept it in the field of play, but, when you put boot to ball, whether chip, grubber or Garryowen, the onus was on the kicker to ensure at least a 50-50 chance of getting it back. Now it's the 'welly and hope' principle almost every time.
Not for a minute am I suggesting suicidal running from deep -- 'when in doubt kick it out' still applies -- but, if I had one wish for 2010, it would be to see a little more adventure in our game. I do worry about the bigger, fitter, faster element which leaves so little space, given that playing dimensions were invented in a different time, but where the will exists and players work to get back in support of the catcher, a host of counter-attacking opportunities arise in every match.
Never has Irish rugby been in a better place as we pass the midway point between World Cups. After the New Zealand v France game in the autumn series, I have a hunch that Declan Kidney will use the All Black prototype as the way to go. The upcoming Six Nations will provide a much clearer picture. Rest assured, he is every bit as ambitious as the rest of us. The trick is in balancing Six Nations needs with longer term World Cup goals. The master will no doubt get it just about right.
Beyond that can I wish everybody out there a Happy New Year laced with action-filled contentment and let's hope that 2010 will be the year that we bid au revoir to collapsing scrums, robotic kicking and meaningless replacements...for good.