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Peter Bills: Rugby retreats into tedium

Abe Lincoln, that well known sporting coach and occasional US President, knew a thing or two about how to draw a crowd and keep 'em coming back for more.

How else to explain Lincoln's immortal line, "It is true that you may fool all of the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all of the time; but you can't fool all of the people all of the time."

How rugby football needs to digest carefully those words at a time when the supporter's currency is in so much demand from a variety of sports. For inexorably, before our weary eyes at the very time when supreme entertainment ought to be of paramount importance the world over especially for television, rugby union is retreating, drawing back to the type of kicking fest that persuaded a whole cluster of international coaches, players and officials to ask the IRB to re-examine the laws back in 2002.

That was seven years ago and, apart from the odd tinkering such as allowing players to take quick throw-ins and using touch judges as assistant referees, nothing much has changed. The ELVs have come and gone, killed off by the votes of the northern hemisphere countries who refused even to trial the most relevant of them. There's democracy at work for you, but already, some who rubbished the ELVs are now complaining at the nonsense being served up. Sorry boys, you should have thought of that before you closed your eyes and minds to a different approach.

But if ever a weekend exemplified rugby's growing problem of boring, penalty ridden matches and mindless kicking dictating and deciding games, it was this last one.

Much of the 2009 Tri-Nations, which concluded this last weekend, has been one long boring boot-in. The South Africans, undeniably the No 1 team in the world, used their formidable power chiefly to bludgeon the opposition into submission. Only in Perth, where they used the ball to attack a makeshift Australian back line, did they deign to expand their play. Otherwise, Morne Steyn, their fly half, kicked the bejaysus out of the ball and used their heavyweight pack to set up victories.

In England this last weekend, they opened a sparkling new stand at Leicester and drew the corporates in by the thousands. Alas, those who are new to rugby tend to lose interest at incessant goal kicking. 15-6 to Leicester over Newcastle, five penalties to two, which meant the English champions have now not scored a single try in over four hours of serious play.

This is not an exact science but in France, it was equally grim. Brive 12 Biarritz 15 (four penalties to four penalties and a drop goal), Castres 9 Racing Metro 6 (three penalties to two). In the modern game, defences reign, kicking decides.

In Marseilles on Sunday, in perfect conditions of warm sunshine and inviting surface, Toulouse chose a back line potentially without peer in contemporary world rugby for its speed and innovation: M Medard; V Clerc, F Fritz, Y Jauzion, C Heymans; F Michalak, J-P Elissalde.

Yet the biggest thrill for an alarming number of the 48,000 present was apparently to participate in the mindless Mexican wave. In one of the hospitality boxes, I noticed people's concentration steadily dissipating as Jonny Wilkinson lined up eight attempts at goal. He succeeded with six, three penalties and three drop goals, to win the game for his team, 18-13.

The match was virtually one long, grim act of trench warfare up front, most of it understood by only the specialists. What is this offering the so-called new audience the game is targetting?

The only decent rugby I saw the whole weekend was New Zealand's 15-man style which overwhelmed Australia in the last Tri-Nations game of the year. Forward power was used not as a means to an end but to expose physically overwhelmed opponents and service a back line freed up to attack hard, run straight and offer genuine entertainment.

Conversely, two examples from soccer are rather more than coincidental. At Marseilles on Saturday night, Olympique Marseille beat Montpellier 4-2 in a pulsating French League match. And in Manchester 24 hours later, United and City played out an English Premiership game that had entertainment dripping like rain from the rooftops.

Rugby union is approaching a crossroads here. It can either retreat into its specialist shell, as it appears to be doing, and say in effect to the floating punter, "If you don’t like our product, go elsewhere". Or it can continue to believe that those who currently fill so many of its grounds will always do so, no matter the fact that in reality, what they are being offered apart from the experience of the actual occasion, is a game of mind-numbing boredom. Either option is madness because a third factor will decide rugby's fate: television.

In France, TV executives are said to be dismayed by most of the rugby offered up. Canal Plus cameras have visited Brive three times thus far this season without seeing the home team score a single try. Expect viewing figures to start reflecting this poor fare sooner rather than later.

And when, not if, the great TV master begins to reduce his financial largesse, then predictably the professional game will hit most unpleasant turbulence.

Right now, with grounds full of people, rugby is in vogue and getting away with it. But the game is living a lie. There are, of course, occasional exceptions but too often, it is offering poor value entertainment. Yet when played at its best, with an attacking creed, pace and dynamism, it remains one of the best sports to watch.

You sense someone, somewhere in authority, had pretty soon better begin to start concerning themselves with this. Because the truth of Lincoln's words still hold good all these years later.