Brian Ashton: It is time our game responded to voices in the wilderness
Tackling The Issues
Saturday 29 January 2011
It's that time of year: as the Heineken Cup quarter-finalists congratulate themselves on a job at least partially well done, national coaches around the northern hemisphere are in the grip of Six Nations fever while club coaches in England, well aware that there is no rest for the wicked, are busily framing their short-term strategies, based around a mix of Premiership and Anglo-Welsh competition.
Anglo-Welsh tournaments have had a chequered history for a variety of commercial and playing reasons, but the current incarnation – the LV= Cup – has its uses. It offers the carrot of elite European qualification, keeps the finances ticking over and, most importantly, gives our young players the chance of some meaningful activity.
If we opened our minds just a little, we could do something really inventive in the Anglo-Welsh window. This thought occurred to me as I was casting my eye over the Rugby Football Union report entitled "Changing the future of rugby in England": an interesting document that has lots to say about management reorganisation at Twickenham, but next to nothing to say about how change might be instigated on the field. Am I mistaken in my belief that we should be addressing how the game is played, as well as how it is structured?
The notion was reinforced when I watched a game between two of Lancashire's stronger union-playing schools the other day. To a large extent, what I saw was a mirror image of the fare provided week after week by our professional clubs: great commitment, strong foundations in the set-piece and defensive disciplines, little awareness of space and a deep reluctance to break free of the traditional ways of rugby thinking.
There can be no more important task than driving forward the way we play the game in England: only by addressing this can we move ahead, and stay ahead, of our competitors at Test level. Why not use the Anglo-Welsh Cup to experiment with law changes, and run that process down through second-team rugby, academy rugby ... all rugby, if you like, below English Championship level? For years, such experimentation has taken place in a sanitised environment behind closed doors, generally at Cambridge University. To my mind, it's difficult to make a proper judgement on how coaches, teachers, players and spectators – the key stakeholders in the game, the people at the coalface – embrace the challenge unless things are done out in the open.
Why not consider doing the unthinkable for once? Why not look at ways of extending the boundaries of the game by tweaking the laws, thereby matching the ambition rugby has shown off the field. Harlequins, Wasps, Saracens and now Sale are driving the "Big Game" idea by taking Premiership matches to major venues in London and the North-west, but brilliant off-field experiences are too rarely underpinned by brilliant entertainment on the pitch. If we could change that, we really would be moving in the right direction.
I realise I'm arguing for a radical change of mindset here, and I accept it's unlikely to happen, but the introduction of experimental laws could be highly beneficial. For instance: we could adopt rugby league's 40-20 kicking rule, which would automatically restore full value to a positive, well thought out kicking game. Under this system, a kick from behind a team's 10-metre line that rolls into touch in the opposition 22 would see the attacking side retain possession, with the choice of a line-out throw, a scrum feed or a tap-and-go. The premium would be on accurate kicking and sharp decision-making – just what we want to see from our players at the top level.
There are plenty of other possibilities: one example might be a different approach to the "advantage" law, placing more onus on the attacking side to make the right call immediately rather than lumber through half a dozen phases in the knowledge that the referee will take play back the moment something goes wrong. Certainly, it shouldn't be beyond the wit and wisdom of rugby people to come up with some imaginative tinkerings that might free up the game.
Over the course of a 50-year involvement in the sport, I've come across a small number of teachers, coaches and players who think along these lines. Unfortunately, they have never been anything other than voices in the wilderness. Any document with "Changing the future of rugby in England" on its cover is making big claims for itself. If we're going to break things up and put them back together in a different, better form, let's not restrict ourselves to management issues. Let's go the whole hog.
Sly encroachment of offside rules threatens attacking game
Poor policing of the offside law continues to blight the game, making life impossible for ambitious teams who want to use quick ball in a positive, productive fashion. In my experience, it is the easiest thing in the world for a side to eliminate an attacking threat if, as part of their defensive strategy, they never retreat behind the back foot at the tackle area.
Defenders routinely take liberties close to the ruck or maul. However, the bigger problem in modern-day rugby is illegal encroachment in the wider midfield and outside channels. Players in those areas have become extremely good at appearing to backtrack to an onside position while never quite managing it. This stifles adventurous rugby by strangling attacking intent at birth. All the advantage goes to the side without the ball, and this, in my considered opinion, cannot be right.
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