Rugby Union: Game's change of pace

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The Independent Online
IT MAY be, it probably is, a consequence of advancing years: but I look forward to the time when rugby union football settles down. With every season that arrives, the roundabout seems to be increasing its speed. The whole scene is as volatile as the property market used to be in Islington in that darkest of dark ages, the day before yesterday.

Indeed, rugby appears to be the one area of human activity which remains unaffected by the recession. When Gloucester lose 12 first-team players one can only conclude that material inducements of some kind (not necessarily in straight cash) must have played a part in the exodus. As Lady Bracknell might have put it: to lose one player may be regarded as a misfortune for the club; to lose 12 looks like good fortune for the players.

It is, of course, much too early to say, but as a consequence Gloucester may find themselves in the bottom four of the First Division, or National League One, as I read its sponsors wish to term it. This savage pruning comes about to enable clubs to play each other home and away in smaller divisions.

If this is a good thing - and I am not convinced that it is - then it should surely have been thought of at an earlier stage, when the leagues were first set up, or at the later point when the first set of adjustments was made.

The mass relegation at the end of the season is bound to result, even before it happens, in ill temper and a sense of injustice. How will London Scottish and West Hartlepool feel if they end up in the top two positions of the bottom four and have to go back to the company from whom they have only just emerged?

Most of my colleagues in the commentating trade seem to think that this intense competitiveness is healthy and good for the game. I am not so sure.

I have always been in favour of leagues. Scottish clubs have been grouped into leagues for many years, and no one has accused them of veering towards professionalism. In fact, the Scottish Rugby Union is as antique an outfit as may be found in any part of the globe. Likewise, the Welsh second and third-class clubs have operated a league system for as long as I can remember, with wholly beneficent consequences.

The English leagues have had good effects too. Matches between London clubs (excluding the exiled clubs) used to arouse less passion that the egg-and-spoon race at an infants' school. Some clubs, Wasps and Harlequins for instance, did not even play each other.

Today such encounters are closely contested. The level of enthusiasm has increased generally. At the Recreation Ground last Saturday you had the feeling you were at a real match - however disappointing it may have turned out to be as a spectacle. In the old days Bath, like Wasps, were not even on Harlequins' regular fixture-list.

The match was disappointing partly because of what was thought to be at stake, even if it was only the first league game of the season, involving neither the championship nor the possibility of relegation.

The new, febrile spirit in rugby can be observed in the exaltation of coaches who are acquiring the status of football managers. 'We've got a new coach,' a Rosslyn Park official confided to me the other day. 'He's from Australia,' he added, to leave no misunderstanding about the value of the acquisition, much as a 15th-century courtier might have proudly announced the arrival of a painter from Florence.

These wonder-workers will naturally have to acclimatise their charges to the new laws. My impression is that they have already been absorbed and put in practice more readily than most people believed possible. Certainly the line-out changes have proved a success.

The disincentive to lengthy rucking and mauling may, however, work against England. The match between Leicester and the England XV became as niggly as it did because Leicester's Dean Richards managed to prevent the ball emerging on the English side, so giving Leicester the put-in.

The law about outsiders staying on their feet after a tackle is, predictably, causing difficulty. The law about the quick throw-in anywhere behind the point at which the ball went into touch has hardly been exploited at all. No doubt the game will settle down before I draw my old-age pension.