Rugby Union: Points do not necessarily mean prized performances

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APART FROM going on about your children or your pets, there is nothing more tedious for the younger reader than maintaining that life was better in the old days. I am certainly not saying that rugby was better then. But it does rather depend on precisely which old days you have in mind.

In 1999 the game is, I think, more attractive to watch than it was in 1950. Some of my older readers may remember those rain-soaked afternoons - for the greatest authenticity, the soft, steady drizzle of south-west Wales - when the scrum-half would find touch directly, make about 20 metres, secure the ball from the lineout, and repeat the procedure until his forwards were on their opponents' try-line.

They would then score a pushover try: three points, or five with the conversion, which was more difficult in those days because the ball was heavier, the more so on a wet afternoon. Sometimes an entire game would be confined to one touchline. It would end 6-3, a penalty goal and an unconverted try to another penalty.

The greatest exponent of this type of play, Clive Rowlands, came at the very end of the era. These tactics, if such they can be called, became more difficult to pursue when the laws were changed to prohibit kicking direct to touch outside the kicker's 22. They also depended on lineout supremacy, because the defending side were doing the throwing-in.

They would be impossible to follow successfully today, not only because of the rule against kicking direct to touch, but also because a pack are expected to secure possession from their own throw. If they do not, the poor old hooker - who, I should have thought, has quite enough on his plate already - gets all the blame.

In the old days the task was entrusted to the wing. It was often the only time he got his hands on the ball in the entire game. Sometimes these days he does not get his hands on the ball at all. Even so, I should not like to return to 1950.

Let us, however, speed up the film and stop at 1975. There is little doubt in my mind that the game was a better spectacle then than it is now. This may be a distorted view because the British Isles were successful internationally: the Lions had defeated both New Zealand and South Africa in its first half. There was then no World Cup to test us. Wales were having the most successful decade in their history.

It was not merely a matter of having great players around. In Wales, J P R Williams, Gerald Davies and Gareth Edwards were still carrying on. But in the centre, Ray Gravell and Steve Fenwick were, as a pairing, inferior to Scott Gibbs and the now discarded Allan Bateman in the Welsh side today. And yet rugby - not just Welsh rugby but rugby everywhere - was more attractive in those days.

Those who agree put it down to the tighter defences of today. This is superficially a plausible argument. We all watch matches where the defence line up rugby league-style with their opponents, both sides as near to each other as they can legally (and often illegally) get. There is then a high tackle which goes unpenalised, a ruck or maul and possibly a turnover - the Holy Grail of modern rugby. Indeed, there is an advanced view that initially possession is to be avoided rather than sought because of the risk of what is both a Holy Grail and, from the other side's point of view, the ultimate calamity: the turnover.

But I am afraid that the argument about tight defences will not altogether wash. If it did, scores would be lower than they are. After all, the five- point try did not come in with the professional era or even with the formation of the leagues. Yet scores today are much higher than they used to be.

Only two of the 12 Heineken Cup matches over the weekend produced what I would call normal, tight Cup-tie scorelines: Harlequins 11, Montferrand 9 and Swansea 10, Bath 9. Saracens v Pontypridd, Neath v Grenoble and Padova v Toulouse clocked up match totals of, respectively, 87, 57 and 56 points. Altogether the Heineken Cup matches that have just been played averaged a total of 44 points a match. This suggests that defences are about as tight as Cabinet security.

Admittedly a good proportion of these totals are brought about by penalty goals. We are still left with the conclusion that big scores are not always the consequence of attractive rugby.

My own view is that the professionals of today have been coached out of their wits. True, there are exceptional cases: Tim Stimpson's try for Leicester against Stade Francais 10 days ago, or Shaun Longstaff's two profitable runs for Glasgow against Leicester on Sunday. It was significant that two of these performances occurred down the touchline. The midfield remains congested. But somehow the points still keep piling up.