Rugby Union: English habits hard to break

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The Independent Online
OUR new season is one weekend old and already a lot of us are tired of it: tired, that is, of the new laws and tired of the endless moaning about them. Leicester against England, a whimper rather than a bang with which to kick it all off, was perfectly symptomatic.

Never mind England's inadequate 18-11 win and the bearing it may or may not have on next month's international against Canada at Wembley, it was the laws (never 'rules' in rugby union) that held everyone transfixed. Players, coaches, and above all it seems, referees, are undergoing a crash course not simply in the unfamiliar but in the downright unnatural.

So what is the problem? First there is the ruck/maul law: if the ball becomes stuck after you take it in, you lose the scrummage put- in. Then there is the tackle law: the very next player to arrive after a tackle and those who follow must keep their feet. The two go together - one would have said hand in hand if the changes actually encouraged handling.

But they require contrasting refereeing: far more latitude in allowing mauls to proceed beyond their previously normal term, far less in allowing players to dive in on the loose ball. It sounds simple but, British rugby players' habits dying hard, it is inordinately difficult.

This much was clear when 100 years of rugby at Welford Road were celebrated. The England management were glad for their squad to renew acquaintances and perhaps even relieved that the game had not turned out far worse. Reference to Wales's defeat by Bridgend in 1989 reveals the morale-shattering potential of such exercises.

When England complained of diving Tigers, Geoff Cooke, their manager, used the grumble to plead for the same Draconian refereeing as Jim Fleming applied to last season's opening World Cup game between his team and the All Blacks. Which shows two things: that, after all, nothing much has changed, and that it was incumbent on players to keep their feet long before the new law was enacted.

'We have to be prepared for a period when referees just blow and blow and blow; they have to be prepared to take the bit between their teeth,' Cooke said. 'This is the only way we are going to adapt. We all know we have players in this country who love to get off their feet and if they are allowed to do it they will just carry on. It's very, very difficult to break habits.'

Implicit here was criticism of both Leicester and of Ed Morrison, the referee. But whatever Cooke's justification, let us not foregt that it is reasonable for any club side confronting a quasi-national side to exploited the laws and the refereeing to the limit.

Inconvenient as it may have been, the Leicester pack were aggressively unwilling to act as cannon-fodder, and at least this made for a worthwhile forward contest. If the Tigers defence had not been pierced at the start of each half, when the incisive Nigel Heslop scored his two tries, they would probably have won and they were worth more than the Steve Hackney try that heralded a late recovery from 3-18 to 11-18.

Indeed the forward exchanges were so acerbic that Morrison eventually called both captains aside to cool tempers after a bust- up which included Dean Richards punching his revenge into Martin Hynes's face for an earlier incident when Hynes had gratuitously trampled on Richards's back.

The Orrell prop was in occasional trouble on the B tour of New Zealand for similar indiscipline. Cooke did not excuse him but did note that in New Zealand players on the ground were fair game - though, recalling the tour management's consistent criticism of NZ methods, this is like wanting the penny and the bun.

'In the southern hemisphere, if you do slip down and don't get penalised you get kicked to bits and the referee is quite happy to let you get kicked to bits,' Cooke said. 'We don't allow that here, quite rightly, but it does have a positive effect in that people stop doing it.' Even so, dare we hope that our players will do the sensible thing by learning the new laws and putting them into practice, just for now? With any luck the contentious ones will have been repealed by this time next year and then we can all forget it.

Cooke's frustration extended to his desire to assess Neil Back, the Leicester open-side flanker playing for England. First Back's head-to-head with Peter Winterbottom was, well, knocked on the head when Winterbottom had a hernia operation. Then on Saturday Back sprung his shoulder and was an early casualty.

His lay-off will be a minimum of three weeks and, as Winterbottom is targeting a return for Harlequins by the end of the month, it is possible that Back will miss out again. The other great B-tour success, Tony Underwood, got the man as well whenever he was given the ball, though, opposite him, brother Rory did not even get the ball.

More striking than any of these was Richards, a colossus for Leicester in the second row, where Cooke has long fancied him for England. 'I always have been impressed by Dean Richards as a lock,' the manager said. 'It was one of the little battles I lost three years ago. I was delighted to see him have an outstanding game at lock. I can well see that would be an ideal position for him for the rest of his career.'

In fact it was in the autumn of 1988 that Cooke suggested his No 8 might profitably change positions but Richards gave him a dusty answer and someone called Paul Ackford emerged from obscurity to become to finest front- jumping lock in the world. Cooke has had cause to be grateful to Richards ever since.

Leicester: Try Hackney; Penalties Liley 2. England: Tries Heslop 2; Conversion Webb; Penalties Webb 2.

Leicester: J Liley; S Hackney, I Bates, S Potter, R Underwood; J Harris, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, D Richards, M Poole, J Wells (capt), S Povoas, N Richardson.

ENGLAND XV: J Webb (Bath); N Heslop (Orrell), J Guscott (Bath), W Carling (Harlequins, capt), T Underwood (Leicester); R Andrew (Toulouse), R Hill (Bath); M Hynes (Orrell), B Moore (Harlequins), J Probyn (Wasps), M Bayfield (Northampton), N Redman, S Ojomoh, B Clarke (Bath), N Back (Leicester). Replacements: M Pepper (Nottingham) for Back, 15; P de Glanville (Bath) for Heslop, 47; D Pears (Harlequins) for Webb, 54.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).