By Charlie Morgan
Leave festive cheer a minute and embrace your inner Ebenezer Scrooge. Although 2013 provided plenty to celebrate, some aspects of the game were grating. Here is a selection of lowlights.
My opening moan surrounds the breakdown, still a manic battleground shrouded in uncertainty. I believe a vicious cycle that jeopardises player safety has been triggered.
Firstly, the concept of supporting bodyweight isn’t properly policed. Nobody should be able to slow possession, let alone win a penalty, with their forearms resting on the ground. However, they have been allowed to – directly bringing about a more sinister issue.
Clearing out is now carnage, attackers often plunging off their feet into a pile of bodies. Nobody wants physicality to be compromised, but players propelling themselves at prone opponents like crazed porpoises is an injury epidemic waiting to happen.
The sight of Brian O’Driscoll tottering around the pitch against France last March was sickening. So was George Smith’s re-entry to the deciding Lions Test after being reduced to a jelly-legged mess by Richard Hibbard’s granite noggin. Thankfully, these high-profile blunders have brought about heightened awareness and tweaks to IRB protocol. Still, it is too perpetual an issue to ever neglect again.
Allianz Park and Cardiff Arms have produced some enthralling encounters this season in abysmal conditions – think back to the Blues’ gritty, rain-soaked Heineken Cup defeat of Toulon in October or Saracens’ dismantling of Leicester a fortnight ago amid a monsoon. On both occasions, artificial surfaces stayed firm to give the best chance of fluency. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of other grounds.
Murrayfield is still cutting up after the autumn and the Millennium Stadium’s turf, a repeat offender, has sunk to farcically low standards. A £3.3 million redevelopment this summer cannot come soon enough. During Les Bleus’ clash with South Africa, the Stade de France was appalling too. Besides anything else, scrums become a perilous shambles. Which leads us onto the next grumble…
The first 40 minutes of Wales’ eventual defeat to Australia in Cardiff was among the most exhilarating halves of 2013. But when half-time arrived, something was missing – a breathless period of play had seen precisely zero scrums. Even the most die-hard front-row fans weren’t complaining.
Overall, the law trials are working. A new sequence has brought about more stability and rewarded dominant packs. The nauseating “yes, nine” call will probably be phased out and consistent refereeing of the feed has been promised. But frustrating delays remain. Set pieces can take over two minutes to complete, even without re-sets. Add this to a heavy reliance on television match officials (more later) and there are lulls in action. Loyal spectators are getting bored and newcomers are being put off. It’s tough to blame them.
The European mess
Sadly, the worst of this is yet to come. Although RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie has promised to “bust a gut” to guide English clubs into a pan-European tournament next season, there are plenty of obstacles in his way. For one, mutual loathing between the Welsh Rugby Union and the regions – a separate issue but certainly one concerning the Heineken Cup – might end up in court. Truly, the sorry saga has showcased everything ugly about professional rugby.
Between a fine of £60,000 for Northampton allowing George North back to Cardiff and the impending sham that will be the first Test between New Zealand and an understrength England this June, the IRB’s international window needs a re-think.
Barefaced media bluffing
Irresistible riches across The Channel means Top 14 transfer speculation will continue. That said, it would be nice if coaches were as blunt and honest as Richard Cockerill on the subject. A day after Toby Flood tweeted to say he hadn’t made a decision on his future, the Leicester boss refused to maintain the charade.
“Toby rang me on Thursday to say he will not be with us next season,” he told BT Sport. “We move on.”
Contrast that with the approach of Bath’s Toby Booth, owner of the stoniest poker face in the Premiership. His words on George Ford back in January now look laughable: “We are disappointed by the speculation. His father, Mike [Bath defensive coach] should know and he hasn’t signed with us because he wants to stay at Leicester – George is categorical about that. And that is direct from Mike.” Guess what happened next.
Passable forward passes
Law 12 doesn’t leave much room for ambiguity – “A forward pass occurs when a player passes the ball forward. ‘Forward’ means towards the opposing team’s dead-ball line.”
But factor in the notion of relative velocity. Suddenly you need a physics degree and five minutes with the TMO to make a call. Then sometimes a supporting player is allowed to run onto the ball having been flat with the passer, all because there was a hint of ‘backwards hands’. Let’s give sovereignty back to the referees and trust their eyes rather than twiddle our thumbs.
Calls for a Lions quota
Selection debates are a delicious part of Lions tradition. With that in mind, most of the consternation surrounding O’Driscoll’s axing for the series finale was both expected and acceptable.
However, when people still rubbished the decision after a first victorious tour in 16 years and suggested a quota of players per nation, we entered the realms of the ridiculous. Warren Gatland is often (fairly) criticised for picking on reputation, but this time he knew sentimentality was no substitute for winning. Thank goodness for that.
The second half of Wales vs. Tonga
Self-explanatory really – this was quite simply the most turgid, error-saturated passage of rugby this year. Best banish it from memory.