Undermining the wonders of the game

Imported defensive techniques are now stifling creativity
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To me there is nothing at all odd in the spectacle of Rugby League and Rugby Union players performing alongside one another. The very first top-class matches I saw were the war-time internationals at St Helen's, Swansea, where Pilot Officer Bleddyn Williams (Cardiff) played outside captain Gus Risman (Salford) for Wales, with Lieutenant Hayden Tanner (Swansea) at scrum-half.

We are all heavily influenced by our first experience of anything. We remember buildings, or rooms within them, as being much bigger than they really were. It is the same with rugby players. We know from the records that they were smaller than their successors today. Rees Stephens, for instance, was 6ft 2in and 15 stone, which would qualify him as an open-side flanker now, rather than the lock and No 8 that he was.

But we still think they were more talented. And so they were – in certain respects. The standards involved in catching a high ball, giving a pass and taking a pass have not only failed to improve but actually gone down.

These are all relatively simple operations, capable of being mastered by the most static member of the front-row union. Not so with the more delicate and difficult skills traditionally displayed by centre and outside-half. These likewise have deteriorated, even more noticeably. But they have deteriorated for a reason. Or, rather, for several reasons – the sovereignty of the game line, with players standing nose-to-nose; the emphasis on multi-phase attack, the resulting instructions to offload or to form a rack or maul.

Many of the defensive techniques were imported from Rugby League. Clive Woodward, the England coach, was one of the first of his breed to avail himself of the services of a coach from League, implied on defensive duties.

Paradoxically, this modern tendency has now put a premium on League backs (though Iestyn Harris, it should be remembered, has played as a loose forward). The theory is that they are better able to break down modern defences because doing this is what they have been taught or have taught themselves.

The first small wave of league imports lapped onto the Union's shore four or five years ago. The story now is that it did not make much of a splash. This is not entirely so.

Certainly Robbie Paul did not have much of an impact with Harlequins. His brother Henry was something of a disappointment for Bath as well. But Jason Robinson, then with Bath likewise, did enough to show touches of the young Gerald Davies. And Gary Connolly of Harlequins was magnificent, scoring and creating tries, and showing an extraordinary ability to keep his feet and offload in the tackle. Indeed, Connolly was sometimes denied the "Man of the Match'' title because he had won it on so many previous occasions.

Anthony Sullivan, however, did not make such a happy first switch. Now, with Harris beside him, he seems more at home. As Sullivan may make the Wales left-wing position his own, so also it can only be a matter of time before Woodward picks another former League player, Steve Booth, on the wing for England.

Among friends and acquaintances I find little support for my proposal that a scrum 10-metres in from touch should replace the lineout. The change would, they say, make the game altogether too much like Rugby League. But there is complete unanimity among them that the lineout has at present constituted is one of the most unsatisfactory features of Rugby Union.

It was ever thus. Today, however, it is even more so. The players perform a kind of military two-step combined with an excuse-me waltz.

The poor old hooker is persecuted if he does not guarantee possession by unfailingly hitting his man from 15 or even 20 metres. These scenes of chaos have been brought about by surrendering to what used to be plain illegality – and by modifying the laws accordingly. I would turn the clock back.

Thus the throwing-in side would determine the number of players in the lineout, which could be as few as one. They would have to stand in the same spot until the ball was thrown in. Lifting would be prohibited and policed. The thrower-in would not be allowed to feint; anymore than a scrum-half is allowed a dummy put-in. And the modern referee's fetish of the wide gap would be stamped on, for the space inevitably encourages jumping across and consequential injury, or, at least, bad temper. The lineout would no longer be regarded as a source of automatic possession. Perhaps a scrum would be simpler after all.