Semi-finals highlight the onset of rugby fatigue

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The Independent Online

Almost all my colleagues in the rugby-writing trade agreed that the semi-finals in the Tetley's Bitter Cup, which were held successively at the Madejski Stadium, Reading, turned out a great success.

Almost all my colleagues in the rugby-writing trade agreed that the semi-finals in the Tetley's Bitter Cup, which were held successively at the Madejski Stadium, Reading, turned out a great success.

It is not difficult to see why they thought so. The crowds on Saturday were large, almost exhausting the stadium's capacity of 24,000, the sun was shining and the rugby was exciting. Leaving aside the brutal quality of much of the play, we might almost have been at Twickenham for the Middlesex Sevens in May.

I remain a dissenting voice, because I am beginning to succumb to rugby fatigue. Since the start of the Rugby World Cup we have been at it, week in, week out. And that is just the people who write about the game. The leading players have hanging over them not only the final stages of the domestic and European cups but summer tours of varying degrees of intensity. They surely need a good rest before September.

This feeling of having had too much of a good thing has been compounded by the way the World Cup, the Six Nations' Championship and, most recently, the domestic cup have been organised.

The World Cup I wrote about many months ago. In the Six Nations, two matches on a Saturday and one on a Sunday are more than I want to take on board. There is no reason why we should not have one international match on the Saturday and one on the Sunday. Likewise with the cup semi-finals.

They order these things better in France. Both semi-finals are held on successive days of the weekend in neutral grounds. Thus one match might be played at Bordeaux on Saturday and the other at Béziers on Sunday. It was high time teams in England played the semi-finals on neutral grounds. The Reading stadium could serve as one venue. But the matches would take place on successive days.

This would, I know, detract from the size of the crowd and the excitement of the occasion. International matches apart, it is now an achievement (as it was not in the 1940s) to get more than 20,000 people into one ground to watch a game - in this case, two games - of rugby. I can understand the argument perfectly well for successive matches on the same day. I should stillprefer them to be separated.

At Reading some of the virtues of the modern game, and many of its failings, were fully on display. Once again we had a ludicrous penalty try. It was awarded to Bristol by Steve Lander becauseLawrence Dallaglio had entered a maul from the side. There was no means whereby anyone could have predicted from these circumstances that a try would, as the laws put it, "probably" have been scored.

Those of us who saw these matches on Sky television also heard the almost ritual criticism of various hookers by assorted commentators. Their offence was to not "hit their man" in the line-out. It always is. It is becoming thoroughly tedious. Barry Williams was singled out for particular disapproval.

It will be a shame if the line-out goes the same way as the scrum, where flagrantly crooked feeds now go unseen or, when they are seen, unpunished. The line-out has always been a bit of a shambles. But today it is an even bigger mess than ever.

It is perfectly fair that the throwing-in side should be able to fix the number of players in the line. Afterwards they should be required to stand still in the same order until the throw-in is made. There is no reason why this player should invariably be the hooker, who has quite enough on his mind as it is, and who is now expected to cut a dash in the loose as well (an aspect of play where Williams can rarely be faulted).

The wing used to do the throwing-in - a practice in which the French persisted for several seasons after the other countries had given it up, using the double-handed underarm throw. Jacques Fouroux then tried throwing in himself as scrum-half. If the wing can no longer do the job because he is one of the back three (an extra full-back), and the scrum-half has other duties too, there does not seem to be any real reason why the throwing-in should not be undertaken by one of the props, if he is better suited to throwing than the hooker is.

In any case, there should be no guarantee that the throwing-in side should gain possession automatically. Why on earth should they? Scott Murray and, later in the match, Richard Metcalfe demonstrated at Murrayfield, to England's shame, that there need be no such thing as guaranteed possession from the line-out.

There is another new law which is bound to clause trouble before long. This is the one laying down that the put-in should be reversed if the scrum wheels through 90 degrees. We saw only one illustration of its application on Saturday. It caused no apparent ill-feeling. But what if the defending side have the put-in on their line, and the attacking side, through strength, skill or both, wheel the scrum, secure the put-in and score a converted try. Where, I should like to know, is the justice in that?