Men of expansive tastes

Paul Trow examines the appeal of a superlative rugby competition

The scores have been more like basketball than rugby union, but the quality of play as well as the television entertainment has been superb. After a winter of Five Nations' discontent, armchair fans have had their enthusiasm gloriously revived by the Super 12 - proof positive that sometimes a production made specially for the box can outshine anything on offer at the box office. Since the tournament kicked off some three months ago, its format fine-tuned to the satisfaction of Rupert Murdoch's apparatchiks, viewers have been treated to what has turned out to be a magnificent display of sustained attacking rugby.

"It's been wonderful, expansive 15-man rugby along the lines of what we saw from the All Blacks in last year's World Cup, with people running in tries from everywhere," gushed England's captain-in-waiting, Lawrence Dallaglio, while on studio-pundit duty for Sky Sports.

Results such as 63-25, 59-29, 33-32 and 39-31 have become commonplace with teams chasing bonus points (one for scoring four tries or more and one for restricting opponents to a victory margin of seven points or fewer), and for the first time since anyone can remember, crowds in Australia are larger than at rugby league matches.

The tweaks that brought the Super 12 games fully to life, though, involved two law changes - one allowing lifting in the line-outs and the other preventing back-row forwards from breaking away until a scrum has ended. "If the northern hemisphere don't adopt them, they will fall way behind," the Natal hooker, John Allan, said earlier this week, politely ignoring the fact that we already have fallen way behind.

Allan, whose side lost yesterday's final, 45-21, to Auckland at Eden Park, should know what he is talking about. After playing nine internationals for Scotland during his days with Edinburgh Academicals, he emigrated to South Africa in 1991 and has since won eight Springbok caps.

"Before these rule changes, you used to get no more than four phases after winning the ball before play would break down and someone would be pulled up for an infringement. But now, following good, clean, set- piece possession, you can have seven, eight, nine, even eleven phases, with forwards driving on and on.

"In the end, weaknesses will inevitably show in even the strong-est defences and openings will occur. You now don't want to kick the ball into touch because it means you're giving away possession, and keeping possession is the only way you can play attacking rugby. But the real key to the Super 12's success is that the players are enjoying themselves and have made a positive decision to play attractive rugby. In the old days, the ball would only be in play for an average of 33 out of the full 80 minutes. It has been a lot more during the Super 12 and for that reason the players now need to be much fitter," Allan said.

"Since the advent of professionalism, our players have been free of serious injuries. I think if you play three hard games in 12 days, there's no need to train hard as well. We now tend to swim. In fact, when we check into a hotel the swimming-pool is the first place we head for. The heavy stuff is done pre-season, and I'm now as fit and lean as I've ever been. I was about to retire before this season, but now I want to carry on. I'm enjoying it more than I have for years."

Whether Allan was ecstatic after yesterday's defeat is debatable. When Natal trailed 20-16 at the interval after falling 20-3 behind, it seemed that they might make a match of it, but early second-half tries by Eroni Clarke and Charles Reichelmann in effect killed them off. Andrew Blowers, tipped to make his All Blacks debut soon, scored a try in each half and Auckland's other touchdowns came from Jonah Lomu and Carlos Spencer. Adrian Cashmore kicked three penalties and three conversions.

Natal's try scorers were Andre Joubert and James Small while Mark Honiball supplied a conversion and three penalties.

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