Lack of joy killing modern game

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The Independent Online

In the past month or so I have, courtesy of Sky Television, been able to see four marvellous matches: England v Ireland, France v England, Harlequins v London Irish and Northampton v Newcastle. The matches involving England should have been available in full to that majority of rugby followers who are not subscribers to Rupert Murdoch's channel. It is a scandal that the Six Nations' Championship has been split between Sky and the BBC.

It would take up the rest of the column if I were to deal fully with this subject. I want to discuss instead something else. Why is it that, despite the evident quality of the rugby on display, I end up slightly disappointed? Is it primarily a question of age?

Certainly several friends and acquaintances who are more or less as old as I am seem to share my view. Afterwards they will say: "Terrific match but, you know, when you come down to it I don't really like professional rugby.''

Will Carling is rather younger than our contingent. He is critical, too. But in a different way and for different reasons. He does not object to the manner in which professionalism has developed but, rather, to what he claims is an over-reliance on defence.

This does not bear a moment's serious examination. Aggregate scores in matches are uniformly higher than they were a decade ago, when the try was likewise worth five points, and kicks at goal were just as frequent as they are today. Defences may be tighter and better organised, largely owing to the influence of coaches from rugby league. But they are breached regularly all the same, as a glance at the results any weekend will demonstrate convincingly.

Defences are breached as they are partly because top-class teams attack all the time, keeping the ball in hand to avoid losing that holy grail of the modern game, possession. Indeed, they attack when they should be putting the ball into touch instead. They do not do this because they think they risk losing possession – even though possession is not yet, thank goodness, guaranteed from a line-out as it is from a scrum, however accurate the hooker's throwing-in may be.

In Carling's – admittedly successful – days of captaincy, a good England performance consisted in a heavy pack trundling down the middle of the field with Dean Richards hiding the ball up his jumper and waiting for the inevitable kickable penalty. When you remember this, Carling's criticisms become not so much rich as positively fruity.

And yet, he is right to the extent that some of the joy has gone out of the game. I feel a little awkward about admitting this. Season after season I did not so much campaign – for I am not a campaigning sort of person – as, rather, urge that rugby should embrace professionalism. By this I meant that money in the boot, as in Wales, or lucrative jobs on the quiet, as in the more prosperous parts of England, would be deceptions belonging to the past. Players would continue to earn their living as teachers, policemen, representatives or whatever it might be. But they would be able to afford a longer holiday, a bigger car or even, if they were lucky, a better house. In short, they would be placed on the same financial footing as most rugby league players, apart from one or two stars in the more successful Northern clubs.

It worked out quite differently. The late Clem Thomas had warned me it would. "What you are doing,'' he said, "is making the game safe for the Moriartys of this world.'' Clubs were taken over by assorted Mr Moneybags, most of whom, to be fair to them, had a genuine enthusiasm for the game, even if little real knowledge of it. Two great clubs, London Scottish and Richmond, were cynically extirpated as top-class practitioners merely to cut down the Premier Division to the 12 teams that were thought convenient.

Difficulties continue to be made about promotion and relegation, with the ups and downs restricted to one rather than the more sensible two. Onerous conditions are newly imposed on the promoted club in respect of ground facilities. The consequence is that if Rotherham finish at the head of the First Division, they may be denied a place at the top table because their ground is deemed unsatisfactory.

On their performance last Saturday Harlequins do not deserve to finish bottom of the Premier Division, but someone has to. As their recently reappointed coach, Mark Evans, put it, while cup competitions are capricious, League tables do not lie. If the Quins go down, what, I wonder, will happen to the England squad places of the current internationals Jason Leonard, Dan Luger and Will Greenwood? Clive Woodward, the England manager, seems to have made a point of selecting only those players who are performing in the Premier Division. Would Leonard, Luger and Greenwood keep their places if Quins were relegated? Or would they, too, turn out to be further victims of professionalism?

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