Length and breadth too vital to be left at large

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The Six Nations' Championship is to see several changes in the laws affecting the scrum, the line-out and the tackle. These are complicated areas that have caused a lot of trouble in the past. They will no doubt go on causing trouble, whatever changes are made.

The Six Nations' Championship is to see several changes in the laws affecting the scrum, the line-out and the tackle. These are complicated areas that have caused a lot of trouble in the past. They will no doubt go on causing trouble, whatever changes are made.

The changes are to be experimental and will be considered at the International Rugby Board conference in March. Unfortunately, the championship will not be over by then. But I suppose it cannot be helped.

In the meantime, here is a simple proposal that I should like to see taken up by someone. It is to make pitches uniform in their dimensions. When I started to go occasionally to football matches at the Vetch Field, Swansea, in the late 1940s, I was struck by the smallness of the pitch and by the claustrophobic atmosphere. Even Stradey Park, Llanelli, appeared by comparison a wide, green expanse.

In those days football pitches varied a good deal in area, as they still do. Rugby pitches, by contrast, were uniform: 110 yards by 75. A certain latitude was allowed for the touch-in-goal line, with a 25-yard maximum. But rugby players and followers were scornful of football's variety of pitch sizes. It was not, they said, fair on the footballers.

Nor was it. We have all heard of players who were comfortable, say, at Loftus Road, but ill at ease when transferred to what were invariably called the wide-open spaces of Wembley Stadium.

I do not mention Loftus Road inadvertently. When I first went there to see Wasps, now re-christened London Wasps, play Toulouse a few seasons ago - they slaughtered the French side, incidentally, on that occasion - I was both shocked and exhilarated.

I was exhilarated by the atmosphere, which would, however, have been more exhilarating still if there had been 20,000 in the Queen's Park Rangers ground rather than the 5,000-odd who were in fact there. But I was shocked by what seemed to me the Lilliputian size of the pitch. Obviously I did not measure it. But I could estimate the length of the touch-in-goal lines, which appeared to be no more than five metres.

The trouble is that these tiny pitches are now sanctioned by the laws, which lay down maxima but not, as far as I can see, minima. Law 1 provides a drawing. Three lines are fixed: the 22-metre line, the 10- metre line and the five-metre front-of-the-line-out line. But the crucial lines, the length and breadth of the pitch, are left at large: the length of the playing area must not exceed 100 metres and the breadth must not exceed 70 metres. The touch-in-goal line must not exceed 22 metres.

I should like to fix the last at 10 metres, though I am not dogmatic about the length. The playing area should be 100 metres by 70, with no latitude allowed. This might inconvenience clubs who have gone over to football grounds: for example, not only Wasps at Loftus Road, west London, but also Saracens at Vicarage Road, Watford. And yet, it is not beyond the wit of man to modify a stadium or to lengthen a pitch. It is, however, expensive. And, in the modern game, profit is everything.

A few other changes are being proposed, officially rather than by me. One is that, if a penalty is kicked to touch within 15 metres of the goal-line, the throw-in at the ensuing line-out should go to the defending side.

But why on earth should it? A penalty is a penalty is a penalty. The legislators have decreed in their infinite wisdom that, if a penalty is kicked direct to touch, the throw-in is made by the sinned-against side. Be it so, as barristers say. Why should the law be reversed simply because the line is 15 metres away or less?

It is not as if such fashionable line-outs invariably produce a try. On the contrary: they usually end in a messy pile-up and the defending side somehow manage to scramble the ball away. My spirits always rise when the attacking kicker pots the ball over the touch-in-goal line.

Why, I ask myself, do sides go for this by no means automatically profitable option when they have three more plausible choices at their disposal: a shot at goal, a scrum with their own put-in or a tap penalty with guaranteed possession?

Another proposal, coming from Scotland, is that a mark should be possible anywhere in the defending side's half rather than, as at present, behind their 22.

I would abolish the mark completely. It should not entitle a player to a free-kick merely because he has contrived to catch the ball from an opponent's kick inside his own 22. Rugby league has always managed to do without the mark. I see no reason why, in these professional times, rugby union should not do likewise.

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