Peter Bills: ELVs bite the dust

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The Independent Online

So the world of rugby can rejoice this morning. Those nasty, horrible ELVs (or most of them, anyway) are to be ditched.

Indeed, there is widespread cause for celebration and satisfaction. The northern hemisphere, that forward looking, visionary collection of men and organisations ("A World Cup? Over our dead bodies" was the famous retort of one northern hemisphere union to the original RWC idea) has triumphed. And look at the benefits that will flow to the game...

Collapsing of the maul, an ELV trialled idea, will no longer be permitted. All the time that clever, inventive coaches spent organising new mauls into separate "pods" so that they proved conclusively you could still maul profitably under the ELVs which allowed the defending team to collapse them, is proven wasted.

Yet is there not some anomaly here? Figures show that 71 per cent of mauls were collapsed anyway, under the old laws. It was just that teams were forced to resort to illegalities to prevent certain tries. Of course, up in the English Midlands at a club like Leicester where a rolling maul of 25 to 35 yards culminating in a try after about 10 minutes equates to orgasms all round, there will be delight. To quote dear old Bill McLaren in another context "They’ll be dancing in the streets of Leicester tonight."

Show me a law on the rugby field which prevents a side trying to stop the opposition scoring and I’ll show you a daft law. That’s what we’re going back to, with the ruling that prevents the collapse of mauls. It never did and it never will. What are opponents supposed to do - stand back and admire the opposition gradually, slowly, inexorably crabbing its way towards their try line and being unable, under the laws of the game, to do anything about it?

I also look forward eagerly, now that the grotesque ELVs are mostly to be ditched, to the end of this kicking plague, the so-called aerial ping-pong which has so disfigured the game. Well, once most of the ELVs are no more, it will end, won’t it? After all, we have been told time and again by the ELVs detractors that they have been to blame for this boring kicking fest. So remove the ELVs and teams won’t indulge in this boot mania. That has been their argument all along.

All I'll forecast is that if you believe that and think teams will now run the ball out of defence, you must think the moon is made of blue cheese. The ELVs have just proved a convenient excuse for safety first coaches terrified of losing their jobs, influencing players too scared of losing their places if they defied their coaches and ran the ball.

Yet please explain this. Why was it that last Sunday night in France, in the match between Toulouse and Stade Francais of Paris, the Stade Toulouse back three of Maxime Medard, Vincent Clerc and Cedric Heymans, ran the ball out of defence just about every time they caught it. Occasionally they did kick: clever little chip kicks into space over the first line of oncoming attackers. But mostly, they found angles, changed the direction of their run at the last moment and made valuable ground. Oh, and they also brought a 37,000 crowd to their feet with their stirring ambition.

Now might they just have done that because they play under a coach, Guy Noves, who allows his players some flexibility and the freedom to make their own decisions on the field, rather than perform like robots to a pre-programmed philosophy?

Of course, the facts have rarely been allowed to intrude into the northern hemisphere’s debate over the ELVs. For a start, they flatly refused to trial all the laws, terrified that they would change the game for the better and thereby weaken the northern hemisphere nations' influence.

Sure, they have adopted a few, small laws from the ELV trials. So you can’t pass back into your own 22 and kick directly into touch (excellent idea), and defenders have to retreat 5 metres from the set piece (excellent idea but sadly, one that is largely being ignored by most referees who are so feeble in enforcing the offside line). Other than those and one or two others, we’re left with calling touch judges "assistant referees" and allowing the corner flag to be in play. Big deal.

But before the old boys at Twickers pour too large a glass of champagne, I have words of caution to dampen their celebrations. Contrary to reports, the most controversial, far reaching ELV of all, the short arm free kick sanction for a raft of technical offences rather than a full penalty, has not been abandoned. It has been put into the category for further, future examination. Was this the quid pro quo that prevented the southern hemisphere abandoning the conference?

Further examination there should be. This is the re-drawn law which threatens to drag age-old rugby football kicking and screaming from its northern hemisphere comfort zones into the modern world, a world in which a new audience, women and children as much as men, can understand and enjoy a fast moving game, not be bored to tears by constant stoppages to the game for three or four minutes while someone lines up a kick at goal. Or three or four scrums have to be re-set every single time a tiny technical offence like accidental offside is committed.

That is the game of the past, a slow, laborious, largely kicking affair too often decided by a penalty goal awarded to the general mystery of most supporters.

There is more bad news for the northern hemisphere’s British and Irish contingent. Chaps, I have to tell you, the genie is already out of the bottle in the southern hemisphere. Because of the more innovative ELVs which you were too timid even to try, players have had to become fitter, faster, more dynamic and better at decision making than their lumbering counterparts north of the equator. Those superior qualities will, I forecast now, prove crucial when the British and Irish Lions go to South Africa this June. The Lions will be confronted with a power, sustained pace and dynamism of which they are unfamiliar. Good luck to the Lions if they can match those qualities. If they can, it’ll be a fantastic series. But the word is "if".

The outcome we await with considerable interest. But if the Lions are on the wrong end of a flogging, maybe then, just one or two of those in the northern hemisphere who spend their lives with their heads buried six feet down, might just be brave enough to take a peep at the reality of the modern world.