Classical scholars amongst us might describe the rugby year of 2009 as an annus extrarius: a strange 12 months bordering on the bizarre, what with the fake blood business, the drugs scandals, the inexplicable plague of gouging incidents and all the rest of it.
Perhaps the oddest aspect was the near-hysterical reaction from some quarters to the change in the law at the contact area, allowing the tackler more latitude in contesting possession. Some coaches seemed to think it was the worst thing ever to have happened to the game, but they were quickly put in their place by teams like New Zealand, Australia and Leinster, who, with the aid of strong and accurate refereeing, proved there was plenty of opportunity for positive, intelligent attacking play.
Being someone who prefers to look forward rather than back, that's enough of '09. My real interest is in what we can look forward to, and the challenges we should throw down, in 2010. One thing strikes me immediately: we should be clamouring for more major productions of the kind put on by Harlequins and Saracens, who have moved Premiership fixtures to the biggest stadiums in the land – Twickenham, Wembley – with great success. More of that, please. The sport needs all the bold initiatives it can get.
Perhaps more importantly, I'd like to see growing numbers of coaches and players take a philosophical leaf from the book of my all-time sporting hero, Muhammad Ali. Two of his phrases spring to mind. "Defy the impossible and shock the world," is the first. The second? "He who does not dare to take risks achieves nothing in life." These typical Ali one-liners have a direct relevance to rugby, which to my mind is worryingly short of people prepared to open themselves up to what I call "SCD" thinking. The initials stand for "something completely different".
Where in our game do we have the Kevin Pietersen character, inventing the rugby equivalent of the reverse sweep? Where, to hark back to Ali, can we find the imagination that produced the "rope-a-dope" strategy that did for George Foreman in that famous title fight in Zaire? Union is so full of drills and patterns and systems and game plans, the instances of people playing by their instincts are growing rarer almost by the week.
Are the "SCD" thinkers, the flyers in the face of orthodoxy, still around? When I reflect on my years working with Clive Woodward, I think of a man who had a deep-rooted suspicion of doing things by the book. Sometimes, we would pinpoint the very things people said could not be done and work out ways of doing them. Clive created what might be called a culture of possibility during his time with England – not something traditionally associated with the national team – and ultimately, he hit the jackpot.
I wonder to what extent that spirit is still alive in the game in this country. Are enough coaches, players and administrators prepared to buck convention, turn their backs on conservatism and operate outside their nice little comfort zones? Do they have, as Clive had, the courage to fail? How many Grand Slam matches did England lose before winning the World Cup? Three, and they were painful defeats. Lessons had to be learnt and they were, but crucially, there was no turning off the chosen path. Adjustment in the face of defeat? Yes. Abandonment? Absolutely not.
In 2010, I'd like to see less regimentation. This is not pie in the sky; rather, it is entirely logical. In today's game, the lion's share of a team's possession comes from turnover ball, not from set-piece play. And what does the turnover engender? A degree of confusion, with people out of position and out of synch. Instead of forcing patterns down the throats of our players, we need to make them feel more at home in the hostile environment of the destructured game – to encourage them to create order from chaos. Too many teams plan solely for the possession they expect to secure at scrum and line-out. Too few are geared up to take advantage of the disconnected, the disjointed, the disorganised.
On a brighter note, the teams I mentioned at the start, plus one or two others, have shown both an ability to recognise the full range of possibilities thrown up by unstructured situations and the skill to capitalise. We have seen more of this at international level and in the Heineken Cup than in the Premiership, but even in the weekly bread-and-butter competition, there have been moments of illumination. We need more of them, because when rugby is played in the right way, it remains a fantastic product capable of drawing ever bigger audiences.
Inventive Saints catch the eye
Of all the Premiership teams, perhaps Northampton are catching my eye most often. They are playing highly effective rugby: there is a rhythm and tempo to their game, as well as a high degree of intensity and physicality, and more often than not, there is also an inventive dimension that makes them difficult to suppress, especially at Franklin's Gardens. I particularly like the way their forwards use clever footwork to take contact on their own terms and make the close-quarter passing game easier to play.
I like the look of their coaching team. Jim Mallinder, whom I've known for many years, is a romantic with a hard edge. Dorian West, with whom I worked during my time with England, has an incredibly hard edge, tinged with the faintest touch of romanticism (not that he'd ever admit it, having spent many years in the Leicester front row). They are bright, street-wise people who have produced a team who go into the new year with chances in both the Premiership and the Heineken Cup.