You have to hand it to them. It is quite a challenge for an organisation to introduce changes that, far from having the desired effect, quickly achieve the polar opposite, but the International Rugby Board appear to have mastered the art. Before the start of the Guinness Premiership, I had my fair share to say on the subject of the "experimental law variations" currently on trial in Europe, none of it terribly complimentary. Having looked carefully at events in the opening round of matches, I think I'll stick to my guns.
If my arithmetic is correct, the first weekend averaged 3.3 tries a match, with no team managing to score an attacking bonus point. In the lands of the Celts, the Magners League average was right down at 1.2. They've really opened the game up, those ELVs!
The new laws made all teams hesitant and left some seriously confused. My own Saracens were far from exempt in our contest with Harlequins at Twickenham – watched by more than 50,000 people, I might add, which said something about the growing popularity of professional club rugby in this part of the world. The players were as pumped-up as you'd expect before the match, having worked long and hard through the pre-season, but when the chance finally arose to really get stuck in, they seemed to hold back. Along with the other matches, ours reminded me of a prize fight in which a couple of cagey boxers flicked out their jabs but had no confidence when it came to throwing the big punches.
Those people who were expecting the changes to have a dramatic impact might have ended up wondering what all the fuss had been about, because nothing much happened. But if you scratch beneath the surface, you'll find some disturbing trends that could, if the ELVs are brought into full law, have a huge impact on the sport in the long term.
I'll give you an example. There are far fewer scrums. We had only five put-ins against Quins and went through the second period without a set piece called in our favour. Speaking as a former hooker, that really hurts. And the line-outs? We had 11 on our own throw. As recently as 2003-04, a team could expect the best part of 20 line-outs and at least a dozen scrums. This is a massive change that goes right to the heart of the way a game is plotted and played.
Under these laws, teams are kicking more. We all thought it would happen, and so it has transpired. If the ball spends longer in the air, it spends less time in the hands. If there are fewer passing movements and fewer drives – even the basic pick-and-go routines around the fringes of the rucks look like becoming more scarce because of the way referees are controlling the breakdowns – there will be fewer knock-ons or "unplayable" calls at the tackle, and therefore fewer set pieces.
Rugby is meant to be a sport for specialists, one for all shapes and sizes. This has always been, and remains, its mission statement – its guiding principle, if you like. What price specialists if we continue on this current path? Am I going to pick a prop who is really destructive in the tight but slow around the field if the number of scrums is way down in single figures? Ultimately, the answer will be no. Our scrum coach is Cobus Visagie, who also happens to be one of the best tight-head technicians in the game. The favourite one-liner at the club at the moment is: "Hey Cobus, what do you do for a living these days?" The last thing I want to see is these blokes disappear.
Like all Australians, I am keen to see today's Tri-Nations decider in Brisbane between the Wallabies and the All Blacks, our dear friends from across the Tasman. It's a fascinating match, not least because so many of the coaches involved – Robbie Deans, Steve Hansen, Wayne Smith – share a philosophy developed in the same place: Canterbury. The only difference between the sides could be the colour of their jumpers.
New Zealand started the tournament in free-flowing style, playing instinctive attacking rugby from all parts of the paddock. It didn't quite work for them, so they have reined themselves in and now concentrate on playing in the opposition half. To my way of thinking, New Zealand are exposed in certain areas: for a start, they have no playmaker at inside centre, and that leaves Daniel Carter making all the decisions, rather than most of them. At the same time, I think the Wallabies are making strides under Deans. But the All Blacks will probably just about sneak it, as they so often do. Damn them.
Eddie Jones is the Saracens Director of Rugby. The club's next home game is against Newcastle Falcons on Sunday 21 September at Vicarage Road, kick off 3pm.Reuse content