Peter Bills: IRB must stand firm against the whingers

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The Independent Online

The entire northern hemisphere has been in a stew because the International Rugby Board has, at last, tried to move the game forward into the 21st century by looking at certain new laws.

The storm of protest from the dinosaurs north of the equator was enough to wake the dead. 'What's wrong with our great game?' they roared. 'Why change a winning formula?' they crowed.

Rich that, from people in a hemisphere where provincial sides like Edinburgh and Glasgow regularly attract vast crowds of, well, a couple of thousand for matches in the Magners League. 'But what about that great World Cup?', they bluster.

The 2007 World Cup final was another bore. Five penalties to three. No risks, no invention, no attacking play worthy of the name. Bryan Habana, one of the most exciting players in the world, touched the ball once in that final - how fabulous was that?

England got to the final because the old laws rewarded a no-risk approach, benefited inferior teams that just ground it out and kicked penalties.

For the dinosaurs, that approach is regarded as sacrosanct. But they fail to comprehend that the professional game can no longer be the preserve of the anoraks, those who can bore you witless for hours discussing the intricacies of a rolling maul and the reasons why just about every scrum at the World Cup had to be re-set about four times.

Guys, wise up, get real. The professional game only survives because of television. Without the millions of pounds/euros/dollars or rand, it is dead in the water. And like it or not, television wants style, glitz, speed and dazzle. Take a look around you at the Guinness Premiership. Many in the crowd are women and children, a triumph for the marketing people at the clubs. But this 'new' audience are not specialists in hands at the ruck or why a maul should or shouldn't be pulled down.

They want to see action, big hits, flying wings, super tackles, the ball being thrown around and tries being scored. 15-9, five penalties to three? Sorry, modern day rugby needs to broaden its appeal, and justify the millions it draws from television.

Which is where the IRB's idea arose to try to move the game forward with some new laws.

Alas, this idea has gone down like a lead balloon in traditional circles. Leading the charge against the implementation of all the key ELV's, principally the free kick as opposed to full penalty, were the Irish Rugby Football Union - the same IRFU which greeted the idea of a Rugby World Cup 25 years ago with the grim warning 'Over our dead bodies'.

Those who talk of scrums being de-powered and becoming irrelevant under the ELVs talk twaddle. The truth is, scrums have become MORE important.

Meanwhile, thanks to the introduction of another ELV, the five metre, extra defences must retreat at set phases, backs have flourished and tries have been scored off first phase possession. A terrible thing, that.

There's one thing on which I agree with the diehards. There's a danger that cheating at the breakdown will become endemic. But the solution is clear – referees have to get tougher and show yellow cards. And they need to keep doing that until players get the message.

The defenders of the old ways carefully avoid one damning statistic that undermines their case. On average, the ball has been in play for 38 minutes under these new experimental laws. Under the old scheme, it was 26. In other words, more passing, more movement, more open, attacking play and more entertainment.

That's not a panacea for all ills, and it's true, sometimes the attacking has been shapeless, frantic. But sides are learning that even under the new laws, you must first establish a base, a proper platform. Do that and you can expand your game and speed up your play far more easily under these laws. Above all, what I like about the ELVs, is that they force players to 'play' what is in front of them, to make their own decisions. Not be so pre-programmed they know what they'll be doing off fifth phase possession.

The IRB need the courage of their convictions. They must ride roughshod over the whingers and implement most of these laws. If they are to justify their position as guardians of the game and its future, they need to stand up and make a decision that reflects the whole game's need to embrace the future, not allow a bunch of traditionalists to cling to the past.

HOW CAN THEY IGNORE MCCAW?

The IRB's short-list for the 2008 player of the year doubtless contains some worthy competitors. But honestly, what the hell was the nominating panel doing in ignoring one particular player?

Richie McCaw dragged New Zealand to the Tri-Nations title almost single-handedly at times this year. In Cape Town, against South Africa, the All Blacks were under the cosh for 58 minutes, hanging onto a 5-0 lead. McCaw was so brilliant that his performance remains the best individual display I have seen by a player anywhere in the world this year, by a mile. Graham Henry called it "exceptional" even by his standards.

Without McCaw, New Zealand were thrashed by Australia in Sydney. With him, seven days later in Auckland against the same opposition, they won in a canter. Oh, and he also captained the Crusaders to the Super 14 title.

He has been easily the best player in the world this year and the only possible reason for his complete exclusion from the short list for this (now devalued) award is the most depressing of all. Buggin's turn dictates someone else has to win it. How sad.

This story was sourced from International Rugby News

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