We are in the first few days of a Lions year – always a special time for the sport – and when the cream of British Isles rugby head off for South Africa at the end of May, everyone who loves the game will be counting down the hours to the first Test in Durban. But for those of us taking a longer view of things, the pivotal moment will arrive earlier in the month, when the International Rugby Board makes its final decision on the Experimental Law Variations, which have divided opinion so sharply around the world.
I'll be blunt. The only law worth keeping is the one preventing a defender from kicking out on the full when the ball has been passed back into the 22 – a measure that rewards positive, intelligent, attacking rugby and denies the team under pressure a "get out of jail free" card. The rest can go take a hike as far as I'm concerned, because they fall so far short of what they set out to achieve.
Quite what we'll be left with after the IRB council members have reached their conclusion is anybody's guess. It's pretty obvious where certain nations stand – from very the start, England and Australia have been in direct opposition – but other hugely influential governing bodies, not least the South African union, are more difficult to second-guess. As always in this kind of environment, there will be a lot of arm-twisting and horse-trading going on behind the scenes. I just hope the people involved make the right decisions, because the sport will carry the consequences of those decisions for a long time to come.
If rugby's custodians are really interested in introducing a radical measure that would improve the game for everyone – coaches, players and spectators alike – they should consider a "two referee" system. I know the cynics will say there aren't enough good referees to go round now, but over the last six months I've formed the opinion that this is the best way forward.
This season, referees have been under orders to apply the strict letter of the law to the breakdown: tacklers rolling away immediately, players staying on their feet at the ruck and so on. As a result, there has been an improvement in the control of rugby's single biggest problem area. But the pressure on referees to make the right calls over and over again in such a congested and complex phase of the sport makes it inevitable that other crimes and misdemeanours go unnoticed. Offside is the first among these, and it is making life incredibly difficult for players attempting to do something constructive with the ball.
The answer? A second referee, charged solely with controlling the offside line. This would make a massive difference in freeing up the game – a far greater difference, I'd suggest, than any of the ELVs currently being trialled. Many people welcomed the introduction of the five-metre rule at the scrum, but in reality, it has brought very little value to the attacking side. A concerted effort to implement the offside rule would be transformative by comparison, and I'd love to see the idea put into practice.
Going back to the Lions, what can we expect from them when they meet the Springboks? I think it will be very, very hard for them to repeat the success of 1997 by winning the series. Why? Because there are very few truly outstanding players available to Ian McGeechan and his fellow coaches. In fact, I'd say the senior coaching team – McGeechan, Warren Gatland, Shaun Edwards – is stronger than the likely playing squad. Hardly an ideal situation.
Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell, the two finest Irish players, are world-class operators. I'd probably put Shane Williams, the brilliant little Welsh wing, in that bracket too. And beyond these three? There's the rub. Some decent, dependable internationals might add an extra-special dimension to their games over the coming weeks, but, as things stand, I struggle to see the Lions beating the Boks on talent alone.
Eddie Jones is director of rugby at Saracens and you can see his side in Guinness Premiership action against Bristol at Vicarage Road on Sunday 11 January, kick-off 3pm.Reuse content