Rugby Union: Why we must fly the flag to raise the standard

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The Independent Online
IF ONLY rugby could cast off the ball-and-chain of that incessant whistle it would soon increase its potential as an exciting and dramatic game. In fact, the only bickering about the Rugby World Cup that really matters is over the rules that badly need reshaping. The International Rugby Board must learn the lessons of the past six weeks.

The tackle area is a shambles and referees are so inconsistent we must help to simplify their lives. For a start, being able to sin-bin persistent offenders would be an enormous assistance. And I have a pet bug-bear about teams going for a line-out when they have a penalty in their opponents' 22. They just lead to more unsightly pile-ups that clog up the game. They should be banned.

It is also about time we made the touch-judges work harder. Their presence could be far more helpful to the referee than merely pointing out violent play. With the game being dominated by flat defences these days, the touch- judges could play a very useful role in policing the defending and attacking lines for offside at the rucks, mauls and scrums.

I believe we need a little more lee-way between the lines - maybe they should be held five yards behind the back foot - but whatever mark is chosen it should be the touch-judges who control it. Unless we equip referees with eyes in the back of their heads, we have to remove from them the responsibility of catching the offside culprits.

There's far too much encroachment and if the touch-judges were to stand with their flags indicating the offside line there would be far less opportunity for players to gain illicit ground.

They could be as vocal as they liked in warning players to get back behind the line and once an infringement was committed their flags would signal the offside, just as their counterparts do in football. It would allow the referee to keep his eyes concentrated on what was happening around the ball which is a difficult enough job on its own.

Apart from the persistent encroachers, I'm sure players would welcome more consistency in this area. In rugby league, the linesman always indicates the offside line and you instinctively seek him out when you line up. It saves a great deal of trouble and doubt. Games are all the better for having strict and easily enforceable rules. If you leave any woolly areas players are bound to take advantage and open play is stifled.

The World Cup final would certainly have benefited from a smoother flow of play, but I take issue with those who have written it off as a bad game.

Perhaps, the more you know about what goes on out there the more fascinated you become. If you are turned on only by spectacular play it probably was boring but if you were prepared to admire a professional job extremely well done, there was plenty to applaud.

By common consent among those who study rugby, this was always going to be a defensive World Cup and Australia proved to have by far the strongest. Defence on its own is fairly easy to accomplish if you master the essential ingredients of communication and organisation. But Australia had more; they had decision makers who could add the extra polish outside the team pattern.

Their two wingers, Joe Roff and Ben Tune, for example, were among their best decision-makers. Like their team-mates, they are good footballers who can read the game better than most. They know exactly when to come inside and support.

One of the weaknesses of the British sides was our lack of players who could depart from the game-plan when the occasion demanded it. Australia offered the most solid teamwork of the tournament and yet were full of individuals capable of stepping outside the plan when necessary.

New Zealand were exactly the opposite. They didn't come with a well-welded team and relied too much on individual brilliance. Never was this more apparent than in the last 20 minutes of that sensational semi-final against France.

If they had been able to fall back on a rigid team pattern, employing all their strengths, the All Blacks could have overpowered France in the latter stages. But they started chasing the game without any shape or cohesion and France were able to hold on to their victory. Even if New Zealand had reached the final, Australia would still have lifted the trophy. They would have known exactly what to do; just as they did against the French.

That's just another hard truth for the Blacks to ponder. The way Jonah Lomu was used showed how weak their team plan was. They made a similar mistake against South Africa in the 1995 World Cup final when they kept giving the ball too far out. This time, they used him too much in traffic. As he has proved, time and time again, Lomu needs to be out wide in space to do his damage. Rugby league would know how to use him.

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