The Heineken Cup semi-final weekend lived up to its reputation for generating intense, endlessly fascinating rugby: certainly, it was a lot more interesting than anything played under the banner of Super 14, where the matches pale by comparison.
Unfortunately, the penalty shoot-out that decided the Cardiff Blues-Leicester tie was absurd. In fact, it was a betrayal of the union game. I'd be surprised if anyone with a genuine feel for the sport would relish sitting through a repeat performance.
It's easy to see the funny side. Back in 2003, when I was coaching the Wallabies and preparing for the World Cup final against England, we knew there would be a shoot-out if the scores were still level after extra time – this one involving drop goals rather than penalties. We even practised a little, but not for long. George Gregan had dropped three goals in his entire career; Stephen Larkham had just the one to his name, albeit a pretty important one that took Australia into the 1999 final. That was about it. Larkham is playing over here in Japan now, and I saw him attempt a drop the other day. He was 40 metres out from the sticks, and put it 30m wide.
We didn't take it seriously because it seemed to us that the chances of the final going to extra time were remote, and even if it did, someone would surely win it during the additional 20 minutes. And someone did: Wilkinson, I think he was called. But Jonny didn't kick the decisive points until 90 seconds from the end, by which time the shoot-out scenario had taken on a deadly seriousness.
Losing that final was gut-wrenching for everyone involved, but even though I was in the thick of it, I'm not sure I'd have wanted a World Cup – the most prestigious tournament in the game; the third biggest sporting event on the planet – decided by a couple of loosehead props attempting to execute a skill beyond their capabilities.
I feel the same way about last weekend's match at the Millennium Stadium. The Heineken Cup is a wonderful competition, right up there with the best of them. What we don't need is it to descend into farce. Just because the shoot-out serves a purpose in football – and even in that sport, there are people who are passionately against it as a mechanism for deciding important games – it doesn't mean for a second that it's appropriate to rugby.
Only a tiny minority of rugby players are paid to kick a ball. To see the Blues knocked out of Europe because a back-row forward as magnificent as Martyn Williams failed to do something no one has ever asked him to do during a long career was ridiculous.
So how do we settle knock-out fixtures that the teams can't settle themselves? My first choice is have another game. They still do it in Australian Rules football, and it's the best way to protect the integrity of the contest. But if the fixture schedulers can't countenance such an option, I'd go for the "golden point" solution, where, after a short period of extra time, the game ends the moment a score of any description is registered. That way, a team working their way into drop-goal territory, or forcing the opposition into conceding a penalty by making a crucial tackle or stealing possession on the floor, would be rewarded for playing something we recognise as rugby.
Those arguing against such a system claim it would place the referee under intolerable pressure, but let's be honest here: referees are always under pressure when a game is tight, especially in the last five minutes. A good referee will be ready to make the bold call whatever the circumstances. Only the weak official turns his back at the vital moment.
That being said, I guess coaches around the world – certainly those in Europe – will think a little harder about their shoot-out options now they've seen one unfold in the raw. When it comes to knock-out week, they'll identify four or five blokes who are happy to take the responsibility and have them practising after a team run. It's a sign of the times, but not a sign I like. I'm all in favour of developments that make rugby a better, more exciting game for the spectator, but this particular development does no one any favours.Reuse content