Rugby Union: A season for bringing backs to the front

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The Independent Online
IT IS some years now since I wrote my first book on rugby. The vow I made there and then that it would be my last, did not, alas, survive the publisher's advance for a second. Nevertheless, it was a dreadful experience. Endless days of a blank mind confronted by equally blank sheets of foolscap. In desperation, I enlisted the help of my wife who knew nothing whatever about rugby but whose disarmingly simple sense of logic would be just the thing to put my problems into perspective.

She read the first batch of proofs - 'It seems alright to me,' she said encouragingly, 'but what about the fronts?' 'What do you mean 'the fronts'?' I snapped, irritated by this further complication. ' Well,' she replied, 'you go on and on about the backs, but you never mention the fronts'.

It is probably just coincidence, of course, but it was about that time, the mid-seventies, when the fronts came forward into the limelight, and ever since, those toothless, sweating beasts of burden have been lording it over their smoother, sleeker and more sophisticated brethren.

If, as I suspect, the new laws are going to demand that backs display initiative and imagination far beyond anything we have seen in recent years, those enterprise-free zones in midfield could be areas of high productivity in the future. The sooner that coaches apply themselves to the task of raising the standards of back play in this country, which have fallen far behind those in the southern hemisphere, the quicker the laws will begin to make sense and the better our game will be.

So how do we go about capturing the hearts and minds of the young, restoring the glamorous image of the back and reviving interest in his works? Most of the youngsters I know can't wait to bind tape around their ears, remove their dental plates and wear designer stubble on match days.

Mechanical aids are obviously desirable. There is an endless fascination, for example, with the scrummaging machine which, to the layman, appears to be the most diabolical form of torture ever devised. Yet it has played an important part in promoting the machismo of the forward. Go to any practice session before an international match and the scrummaging machine will be the main attraction. The backs meanwhile will be idling away the time on some distant and lonely field.

This cannot go on. It is the backs, after all, not the forwards, who are supposed to be the entertainers. Colin Bland, that superlative South African fielder, used regularly in practice, to throw down a single stump as his party piece for spectators. Apart from its entertainment value it also happened to be of enormous practical benefit on the field. It is the same with snooker players and golfers who like nothing more than the opportunity to demonstrate the tricks of their trade.

In an effort to steal the forwards' thunder and to attract more attention, the backs might like to consider something along the lines of the contraption, featured in the film Spartacus and designed to sharpen the reflexes of the gladiators. It consisted of a revolving pole attached to which were a number of lethally sharp blades. Decapitation was the hefty price of failure to take evasive action. The serious side to this is that backs are too seldom confronted in practice with the pressures they are likely to experience in a match.

Very few are blessed with the natural gifts of a Gerald Davies, but that does not mean to say that the art of beating a man is one that cannot be taught. Back play is all about artfulness, sharp minds, nimble feet and deception. It requires specialist knowledge and understanding which too few coaches possess. It also requires a higher work rate and greater awareness than it receives from the majority of its practitioners.

How much attention is paid to kick-offs, for example? Kickers should be hitting targets with the same accuracy and regularity as the fielder aiming at a single stump. The restart is a vital area of the play, but how often is it competently executed? At the Reddings last week there were several opportunities for both sides to profit from the quick throw-in at the lineout, but there was not a soul around to take advantage.

The one bright spot in what has been a depressingly negative start to the season was provided by Matt Dawson for England Under-21 against ltaly at Leicester a fortnight ago. His darting runs through the Italian defence put to flight the argument that there is no way through the midfield congestion caused by the new laws.

But then, just when 1 thought it was safe to come out of the closet and hail a new era of supremacy for the backs, I bumped into Des Seabrook. His views an the new laws were fascinating, most of them unrepeatable in a family newspaper. 'And the daftest one of the lot,' he said, 'is the law requiring players to stay on their feet after the tackle.' Here we go again, I thought - more grist to the forwards' mill. 'And do you know why?' Seabrook continued. 'The more forwards you have on the ground, the more room there'll be behind for the backs.' Now there's a thought. . . .