Thursday 14 December 2017

Tony Ward: Move to 13-a-side only way rugby can avoid slow death by strangulation

Rory Best tackles Rory Kockott as a host of French players join in
Rory Best tackles Rory Kockott as a host of French players join in
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Sometimes I truly despair. I hate the direction in which French rugby has gone. They have betrayed their heritage. What made Gallic rugby so great, so different, so beautiful... is no more.

It won me and a generation to the wonderful flair-ridden game in which Les Bleus played rugby with gay abandon. It was winning rugby with a smile. Rugby the French way.

So where did it all go wrong? Of course, it's not that simple: they, like the rest of us, are victims of a game in which there is no longer any space.

How could there possibly be, given that players are getting bigger, stronger, fitter and faster by the day? That would be fine (it is after all the way of the world) except that playing field dimensions are no different now than when the game was first invented and William Webb Ellis did his thing all those years ago.

The game has got a problem going forward, and don't kid yourself otherwise.

Why do you think rugby league went the route it did when taking out flankers and reducing the number per team from 15 to 13? Following league is the last path union's governing body (World Rugby, formerly known as the IRB) wants to take.

In the course of time, though, they will have no option. Rugby needs bums on seats and in order to do that, the game must provide entertainment.


What we got on Saturday was a hugely intense tribal contest in which we won. I basked, like everybody else, in the glory of the moment as well as the individual and collective courage on show.

But take out the win, and how many fans - seasoned or new-age - will be paying top Euro to go back for more?

Rugby is being slowly strangled to death. Already in Munster, we are seeing the difference a failure to maintain winning momentum makes, with attendances down at Thomond Park.

The theory goes that defence coaches come up with more fool-proof systems and then the more creative coaches break them down, and there has undoubtedly been an element of that arms race since the game went open.

But these days, when it comes down to the key factor of creating space, the innovators have no chance. It is now easier than ever to close off space rather than create it.

This is not a rant for the sake of it: it is the concern of a committed fan who happens to have played the game at a decent level and cares passionately about the direction in which it is heading.

How far are we from the gridiron-style protective wear and a case of 'pro sport or no sport' for rugby in this country?

And then there is Philippe Saint Andre: one of the great French free-running backs, who won 69 caps (34 as captain), scoring 32 Test tries. The France coach is up there alongside Serge Blanco, Philippe Sella, Jean-Baptiste Lafond, Patrice Lagisquet in the French pantheon.

I am aware that modern-day coaching brings different demands and different pressures, but some of his utterances since Saturday's game have really incensed me.

Essentially he has blamed scrum-half Rory Kockott (his selection, of course) for the defeat - and, to a lesser extent, out-half Camille Lopez.

Make of these utterances what you will: "Morgan Parra's performance gives us options at scrum-half; if we played the rest of the match like we played the last 15, we could have won easily."

In relation to Lopez: "It is fine to pass to Mathieu Bastareaud from time to time because he sucks in three players to bring him down; however, we need to alternate our play, give it some variety and feed it down the backline or kick in behind the Irish backs."

Where did this Damascus moment come from? His opposite number Joe Schmidt would have spent all week and longer discussing in minute detail precisely the same plan of action for Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray. It's called sensible game management and can be found on page one of the Dummy's Guide to Out-half Play.

But the comment that really gets up my nose relates to Pascal Pape.

"When you watch the image of the incident (knee into Jamie Heaslip's exposed back), I don't think you can say it was deliberate," Saint-Andre said.

Well, I disagree, and Pape has been cited. I was on the receiving end of such a cowardly act on a number of occasions in my playing days and I can tell you it's a nasty one - Heaslip is out for at least four weeks with fractures to three vertebrae.

Saint-Andre added: "I said to Pascal 'you received a yellow card just at the moment we were gaining the upper hand both physically and territorially as we were in their 22'. You expect something like that from an inexperienced player."

Need I say more? Is it any wonder the game's in the state it is?


I don't like to criticise referees, but...

Regular readers will know how slow I am to criticise referees.

I am sympathetic towards the men in the middle, because I feel it's a thankless task. I greatly admire anyone with the courage to go and do it, particularly former players.

Despite all this, I find myself in broad agreement with Scotland coach Vern Cotter in his criticism of Glen Jackson - a former Saracens out-half - following Sunday's defeat to Wales at Murrayfield.

Not for a minute am I suggesting that Jackson was biased, even though most of the crucial decisions went the way of the Welsh; I just feel that the New Zealander didn't really seem to be in control.

Referees are like players, they have good and they have bad days. In Edinburgh, Jackson had a bad one - and so too did the hugely experienced Wayne Barnes in Dublin the day before, the Pascal Pape decision topping the lot.

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