Leeds, down among the dead men at the bottom of the Premiership table, were a decent match for Gloucester, pushing hard for a play-off place and automatic qualification for next season's Heineken Cup, on the rare occasions they kept a full complement of players on the field. Indeed, they won the 15-a-side contest by 7-3. Sadly for the Yorkshiremen, important personnel kept disappearing for 10-minute breaks, like tube staff on a work to rule. The next time they meet Rob Debney, the referee from Leicestershire, they might prefer it to be at the headquarters of ACAS.
Rob Rawlinson, Gordon Ross, Jordan Crane... the card-happy Mr Debney got stuck into them all, packing them off to the sin bin. That he did not slap a similar sanction on anyone wearing a Gloucester shirt was strange indeed, given the equal division of penalties between the two sides, but as Phil Davis, the Leeds coach, hinted afterwards, Kingsholm is not exactly the home of even-handedness. Visitors get an even break in front of the Shed about as often as Phil Vickery dons a tutu and appears as first soloist in The Nutcracker.
Once Gloucester set up camp in one of the corners and start driving their line-outs, two things occur as sure as night follows day: some hapless opponent gets himself carded for dragging down a maul, and the Cherry and Whites score a try. On Saturday, it was Rawlinson who blazed the trail to the cooler - Mr Debney could have been wearing a blindfold and still have spotted the hooker's chrome dome shining away in an illegal position - and Ross who followed him 90 seconds later, having slapped away Peter Richards' scoring pass to James Bailey. By the time Leeds got themselves back up to strength, Gloucester were over the hills and far away at 24-0.
That they did not score again for almost an hour was down to a couple of factors. Firstly, Leeds did not lose Crane to the sin bin until the eighth minute of injury time; secondly, the tackle area was such an unconscionable mess that quality possession materialised about as frequently as Halley's Comet. The second half of the game was dreariness itself, and unless the law-makers address the breakdown with some urgency, a good 50 per cent of Premiership contests will go the same way. How? Restore the ruck. It really is the only solution.
Dean Ryan, the Gloucester coach, knows this to be true. When the Big Bad Wolf of English club rugby was in his pomp, the tackle area was relatively uncluttered. Why? Because the players policed it themselves. Anyone daft enough to lie on the ball tended to find himself on the sharp end of eight sets of studs, after which he would think long and hard about doing it again. Now, with boots on bodies effectively outlawed (not that the refereeing fraternity ever admit to it), we have a ball-killer's charter in operation. The only sanction is the yellow card, which is a lot less painful than an old-fashioned helping of shoe pie.
"Unless both sides genuinely want to play some rugby, it is all too easy to end up with the appalling spectacle we had in the second half out there," agreed Ryan. "Our previous game with Wasps was one of the best of the season, because they wanted to play and so did we, especially when we found ourselves 20 points down. This game was very different, largely because we were a long way into injury time before someone was sent to the bin for an offence at the breakdown.
"I certainly think rugby was more fluid when rucking was a part of the game, but players aren't in a position to deal with ball-killers any more. If they try, they're likely to end up with a reversed penalty and a 10-week ban. Only one person, the referee, can deal with it nowadays, and it's unrealistic to put all the onus on one person. I want to see exciting players, people like James Simpson-Daniel, getting the ball 20 times in a half of rugby, not twice, but unless the breakdown is clean, it cannot happen. I think we have an issue here."
Simpson-Daniel was sufficiently involved to venture twice across the Leeds line, once from a first-half overlap, once from the impressive Ludovic Mercier's clever little toe-poke to the posts in the dying moments. There were decent contributions elsewhere, most notably from Vickery. Twice in the opening half-hour England's substantial tight-head prop sallied forth with the ball tucked under a hairy armpit, making runs of 20 metres, then 40.
Reassuringly vigorous ahead of the Six Nations Championship, Vickery might have caught the eye even more had he not spent most of his afternoon burrowing his way into, or out of, the many interminable pile-ups permitted by Mr Debney. Being a man of simple pleasures, he may even have enjoyed himself at the epicentre of the stalemate. It was not much fun for the holiday crowd, though, and when all is said and done, they are the ones who pay the wages. Think on.Reuse content