Rugby Union: Springboks back to a whole new ball game: Chris Rea looks ahead to a rugby union season which will involve South Africa, new laws and creative accountants

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The Independent Online
A NEW season, a different ball game. Australia are simply the best and may be so for some time to come. Their example both on and off the field is one that should be followed elsewhere in the rugby world with all possible haste. And the Springboks are back.

Rugby union has waited impatiently for their return, and it is undeniably the case that no sport has suffered more from South Africa's isolation. The void has never been successfully filled, although there were times during the past 20 years when it seemed that Argentina and Romania might fit the bill. But there was not sufficient growth to sustain the national product.

The South Africans' reincarnation is complete, but not yet their readjustment to international rugby. At this stage, they are closer to the dinosaur than to their national emblem. The side which played during the summer was a throwback to a bygone age when bulk could overcome technique. No longer is that the case, especially under the new 'designer' laws.

The appearance of such a weighty and ponderous back row against the All Blacks and Australia seemed a curious regression for a country which, 12 years ago, won a series against the Lions with a destroyer like Rob Louw running fast and loose on the flank. The game has moved up a notch or two since then. Nevertheless, the inveterate gambling colleague and friend who got the Springboks at 10-1 for the next World Cup, and has put everything save his golf clubs on it, may be worth keeping in with.

On the evidence of the games against New Zealand and Australia, Naas Botha can no longer be relied upon to dig the Springboks out of trouble. Since the launch of his international career against Bill Beaumont's Lions in 1980, Botha has been blessed with a kick so celestial as to give him a status in his homeland only slightly below the angels. Yet from his performance against Australia it seemed that his boots had made a pact with the Devil. With or without Botha, however, the Springboks will have played, in the space of just four months, the best four sides in the world and will therefore be in a much better position to plan for the future.

That, of course, was the object of England's exercise with the B tour to New Zealand. Some, but certainly not all, of the objectives were achieved. New Zealand have an uncanny knack of surprising even the best prepared opposition, not least in the areas of physical aggression and refereeing standards. High on the list of recommendations in the England management's tour report will be the appointment of independent referees and touch judges for B internationals.

England amassed an impressive number of tries, but the failure of the forwards to look wholly convincing at any stage during the tour will be of greatest concern to Geoff Cooke and Dick Best. The balancing act of dispensing with the old and introducing the new is a delicate one and, although it is now clear that England, quite understandably, intend to go for an historic third successive Grand Slam with as many hardened warriors as they can muster, they must face the fact that before the next World Cup five members of last season's pack will have to be replaced.

However, the sheaf of new laws will be as much under the microscope in the next few weeks as the players. Protestations from some of the leading coaches, who have preferred to expound on the negative rather than extol the positive, have been too much and too loud.

There has been nothing more irksome in the modern game than the static maul, the inexpertly formed ruck and the collapsing scrum. The emphasis now will be on protection at the rucks and mauls, and those who can master the art will have most to gain, while any move to cool the coach's ardour for and, in some cases, obsession with the scrummage, gets my vote.

The argument that the scrummage is in terminal decline as a result of the law changes has little evidence to support it. The Australian scrum played a full part in their Bledisloe Cup victory and also against the Springboks.

It is true that there are likely to be fewer scrums and more line- outs, and that the height and weight of props may become as significant as scrummaging strength alone, but that does not automatically diminish the importance of the scrummage. Fran Cotton and Sandy Carmichael were invaluable as auxiliary jumpers, yet neither could be described as a powder puff in the scrums.

Some are more perspicacious than others in this respect but, if the Scots are ultimately successful in turning Alan Watt, a lock, into an international prop, and heaven knows they have been persistent enough in their efforts, then Watt could claim a place alongside John Taylor's almost posthumous kick at Murrayfield 21 years ago as one of the game's greatest conversions.

The fact remains that, of the plethora of new laws passed in recent years, I can think of only one, the Australian kicking dispensation, which has had a profoundly advantageous effect on the game, and has been universally welcomed by players and spectators alike. The legislators must therefore beware of changing the natural contours of the game with laws which are contrived to appeal to the masses.

Rugby league has tried and, despite the undoubted excellence of the product, failed to break out beyond its narrow boundaries. Rugby union still has much to learn from the professional code although, ever since the Northern clubs opened up their branch line almost a century ago, it has disdained to do so.

But the ruinous policy of offering inflated inducements to players is one which rugby union will ignore at its peril. It is one which has crippled a number of rugby league clubs, and even the fleshpots of Wigan are emptying. The Rugby Football Union has acted with commendable good sense and, despite the carping of some clubs in the lower echelons where the desire for success can be as addictive as it is higher up the scale, with impeccable fairness in its attempts to regulate and restrict the movement of players between clubs.

Inducement to join clubs is one thing. Retaining top players once they have joined is another and, as one official put it recently, 'an accountant with a creative flair is now as important to a club as a decent fly-half'.

The league season begins in two weeks' time. The rewards for success, the cost of failure, will be higher than ever before. The game has entered a new age but, despite the changes and the bleating from all quarters, it will continue to accommodate the great, the good and the coarse; the tall, the short and the fat. It is as compelling as ever.

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