Rugby Union: All buzz but lack of skill

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The Independent Online
WASPS are still the most interesting and exciting side in the Courage First Division. They might have beaten Bath - at the Rec, moreover - on Saturday. In fact they lost, by three points, in a scoreline composed entirely of penalties. They have lost their last three league matches, and are currently fifth in the competition. And yet their coach, Rob Smith, says that he has no intention of modifying their free-running and wide-ranging style.

This is welcome news. Wasps are still capable of becoming like London Welsh in the late 1960s and much of the 1970s; or Llanelli at various happy periods in the history of that club, now going through an uncertain patch. That is, they are capable of being a team who not only attract crowds but also win matches.

It is true - it is even a truism - that dull sides often win matches, too. But as these two Welsh clubs have demonstrated, it is false logic to deduce from this that, in order to win, you have to be dull. There are some doubts, however, about whether Wasps are going about their wholly admirable enterprise in quite the right way.

It should not be necessary to point this out. Rob Andrew is now one of the most intelligent, accomplished and experienced players in the world. Steve Bates, his scrum-half, has a great knowledge of the game. Jeff Probyn, who made his first league appearance of the season on Saturday - and played most of the match with a nasty gash to the head - has been playing rugby man and boy.

Incidentally, I have never made mock of Probyn's ability to get round the field. It is greater than that of most British props. On Saturday, at the age of 38, he made several appearances in open play. In one of them, he possibly cost Wasps a try. But then, so also did several other Wasps' players of roughly half his age.

This brings me to the first worry about Wasps' approach. They are clearly fit enough. So, I should have thought, were Bath. I was surprised at the comment of the Bath coach, Brian Ashton, that his side were tired afterwards because they were unused to the style demanded of them. Perhaps he was making a joke.

At all events, the problem is not fitness but skill. To a certain extent, the same could be said of Bath as well. They lost one virtually certain try when the luckless Ed Rayner gave out a dreadful pass.

But whenever the Bath threequarters got a move on, which they did less frequently than Wasps, they looked the more likely to score. With Wasps, on the other hand, you had the impression that whether a pass went to hand and then stuck was largely a matter of good fortune. Playing the kind of rugby which Wasps want to play requires the ability in all members of the side not only to give a good pass but, if necessary, to take a bad one.

There must also be a consistency of approach. For example, Wasps played more expansively at Bath than they had at home to Leicester on the previous Saturday. In fact, they played too expansively. It is a miracle that Bath did not cross for a try once or even twice. When you are 12-9 down in the last 10 minutes, as Wasps were, it is madness to run the ball from your own line, when the balance of probabilities is that the other side will score (as luckily they did not), so making the count a possible 19-9.

The players can, up to a point, control this and other aspects of play. What they cannot control are these referees. Wasps' style depends on a quick recycling of the ball. Whether the ball is recycled at all - as distinct from being scrummaged or kicked - depends largely on the referee.

Ten days ago, after the Leicester match, the players complained about the referee, Stewart Piercy, of Yorkshire. After the Bath match, they did the same about Eddie Murray, of Scotland. I do not want to go into technicalities, but I agreed with the players.

The Courage First Division now provides the highest standard of rugby in Europe. It deserves better referees and, what is equally important, more consistent referees. There are five matches on a full league day. This entails, to allow for injury or unavailibility, a panel of six or seven top-class referees only - and no more passengers.