Dangers of try and try again

An endless summer of rocketing scorelines may devalue rugby league's traditional values; Dave Hadfield argues that Super League's diet is too rich for good health
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A GROWING number of people who have been watching rugby league all their adult lives are now coming away from matches feeling as though they have gorged all their Easter eggs in one sitting.

The game is bloated with a surfeit of tries. "It might be entertaining, but it isn't rugby league," the traditionalists grumble. They feel like victims of the Great Depression, wheeling barrow-loads of near-worthless banknotes to the bakers for a loaf. The currency of the try has been thoroughly devalued.

The editor of the code's bible, the Rothmans Rugby League Yearbook, Raymond Fletcher, has kept count of the number of matches in which the losing side scored 20 or more points during the past 16 years. They used to be a rarity - perhaps half a dozen a season - but are now the clear majority of matches, especially in this first summer season, as the scorelines in the latest round of Super League matches show: 31-24, 24-46, 24-24, 42-12, 22-54, 30-34.

"There is no doubt that the try is devalued," Fletcher says. "It is getting too much like basketball. I don't like it myself, but there is a new public, people who perhaps don't quite appreciate the technicalities, and it is entertaining for them. The question is, like the American Football boom, whether they are still going to come when the novelty wears off?"

There are coaches, like Castleford's John Joyner, who share his distaste. Tony Currie, the London Broncos' coach, also stepped out of line after what Sky's commentary team had assured viewers was a thrilling 38-22 victory over Paris St Germain. It had been, he said succinctly, "crap".

The case for the defence is put by the main architect of the way the game is now played. Greg McCallum, a former leading referee in Sydney, carries the relatively restricted title here of director of referees, but in effect his role has been to restructure British rugby league.

"We knew for 12 months that Super League was coming and we wanted it to be special, spectacular and exciting. Everything we've done has been aimed at that," McCallum says. "The first thing was to clean it up. Blokes were getting their heads knocked off and you can't develop skills in those circumstances."

The next step was to speed up the play-the-ball, the basic building block of the game, and give the attacking side more room to move by pushing the defence back 10 metres. The result is that live-wire acting half-backs, like St Helens' Keiron Cunningham, are carving apart defences which are still struggling to get back into position. It is no wonder that there are a lot of tries.

"I don't think it has become too easy," McCallum says. "If you analyse sets of six tackles, I think you will see that the full range of skills is still required. Every now and again, you are going to get games with fewer than 20 points and there can be tremendous excitement in games like that."

McCallum's view of the game may stem from the time he spent refereeing in Australia in the Eighties - the code's most barren period. He is now leading the British game in precisely the opposite direction. But, when warmer weather debilitates defences and scorelines soar higher and higher, nostalgia for the more gruelling, attritional aspects of the game will build.

Many would agree with Fletcher that last year's most compelling game was the first State of Origin match in Sydney, which was screened live here. The score? New South Wales 0 Queensland 2.