Rugby Union: England green on laws

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The Independent Online
SOME of my colleagues, I see, have been grumbling about Saturday's international because Wembley was not Twickenham. I, by contrast, enjoyed the occasion even more than I should otherwise have done for this very reason - as, by all accounts, the players did as well.

In football there is the Cup final mythology of the wide, open spaces of Wembley, which are supposed to distort distance. There is also the famous turf, traditionally written about as 'manicured' which, however, has the reputation of bringing tiredness to the players.

Saturday's encounter was rougher and more bruising than many people expected. But the state of the going underfoot had nothing to do with this. Canada simply tackled as ferociously as the Western Samoans.

The true difference was that the grass was shorter than at Twickenham. But then, the length of the grass there at the beginning of the season has always struck me as grotesque. It must be like playing in a hayfield. How anyone can make a place kick at all, let alone a successful one, from such a jungle has always mystified me.

Then there is the Wembley roar. Acoustically, this really does exist. The 40,000-odd who were watching the match (5,000 more than were expected) made a greater noise than the same number would have done at the headquarters ground. This included booing that siege gun outside-half Gareth Rees when he took Canada's penalty kicks, though admittedly the jeering fell away as the match progressed. The same would have happened at Twickenham - has, indeed, been happening, roughly since the mid-1980s.

I do not myself take a stern moral line on this. The Welsh have traditionally been great booers; the French have combined it with whistling. The Scots took it up at Murrayfield long before England did at Twickenham, and were the recipients of dominie-like homilies from Bill McLaren on television, which, however, did nothing to modify his fellow countrymen's behaviour. Most kickers remain unaffected by such demonstrations. It seems a pity, that is all, that England have gone the same ill-mannered way of other countries in this as in other respects.

Apart from the booing, what about the match? Let me begin with one matter that has puzzled me: Ian Hunter's first try. The law on tackles has been modified to the extent that players attempting to play the ball afterwards must stay on their feet. It remains part of the law - it is, if anything, being even more rigorously enforced - that, after a tackle, the tackled player must immediately release the ball.

As for the scoring of a try, our old friend 'momentum' still allows for two movements if the ball carrier is brought down short of the line. A television commentator claimed that this was what was involved here. But surely the case was different. Hunter was brought down short of the line. His entire body was prone, in contact with the ground. Being a big, strong and determined lad, he got up again and was helped over the line - he would probably have got there anyway - by the rapidly arriving English forwards.

It is said Hunter was not 'held'. if this is to be the law, rugby union is in the same state as rugby league, and there are numerous interesting possibilities.

I also had doubts about Peter Winterbottom's try. I have not always been altogether kind to Winterbottom, but I remain an admirer of his tackling. In this and other ways, he had an excellent match, and helped to make Jeremy Guscott's try.

Before his own try, he was standing off a maul on the blind side. He forcefully joined the maul, ripped the ball out with part of his body in front of it, and, assisted by the pack, twisted over the line. In my opinion, first, he was offside when he gathered the ball and, second, the ball was transferred forward.

The general impression was that England had failed to adapt to the new laws and that time was catching up with them. This, however, is misleading. Justin Leonard, Victor Ubogu (who, alas, did not make a great impact), Martin Bayfield and Dean Ryan are hardly old men. As Paul Ackford suggested on Rugby Special, the clubs should perhaps start picking players such as Ryan and Richards in their England positions. Or perhaps, again, it ought to be the other way about.