State of the game forces Pugh to tackle fault lines

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The Independent Online

Those dyed-in-the-wool rugby folk who fear that tomorrow's Cook Cup Test between England and Australia will not seem like a real game of union at all - semi-contested line-outs, no rucks, no hairline decisions from the referee because a video official is being employed to make them for him, no beer after the match because the police are closing the bars - will be pleased to learn that the sport's governing body is finally on the case.

Those dyed-in-the-wool rugby folk who fear that tomorrow's Cook Cup Test between England and Australia will not seem like a real game of union at all - semi-contested line-outs, no rucks, no hairline decisions from the referee because a video official is being employed to make them for him, no beer after the match because the police are closing the bars - will be pleased to learn that the sport's governing body is finally on the case.

After five years of worshipping the false god of "entertainment", the International Rugby Board has belatedly realised that union is losing the best of itself; indeed, that it is becoming more like rugby league than rugby league. Vernon Pugh, the IRB chairman, and two influential colleagues, Allan Hosie and Tim Gresson, yesterday agreed to convene a series of meetings aimed at restoring a genuine contest for the ball in all phases and re-establishing union as a game for all shapes and sizes, from the spherical prop to the willowy full-back via the lighthouse lock and the stubby scrum-half.

In part, the board's initiative was prompted by fierce criticism of refereeing performances at Test level, notably that of Wayne Erickson, the Australian official, who was lambasted from all directions following New Zealand's victory in Paris last weekend. But the delegates also fear that rugby has become too monochrome since the game went professional a little over five years ago. "There is no doubt that rugby has become more dynamic to play and more entertaining to watch, but these beneficial and welcome changes to the style and pace of the game have inevitably brought their own concerns," Pugh and his colleagues said in a statement. "The IRB believes there is a need to address some of these issues."

First among these is the balance, or lack of it, between "continuity and contestability", as the statement puts it. "Continuity of possession does not always equate to continuity of play and does not necessarily guarantee the enhancement of the game as a spectacle," said Hosie, a former international referee who chairs the board's laws committee. In other words, seeing the Wallabies recycle possession 20 times in a row because the current laws make it almost impossible for opponents to retrieve the ball at the breakdown is akin to watching paint dry.

Hosie is also concerned that top-class teams "defend space" rather than challenge for the ball - a direct result of the virtual outlawing of the ruck and the consequent dilution of traditional forward play. "This trend is strictly limiting legitimate avenues of attack," he said. "If players are required to stay on their feet, it would go a long way towards restoring the delicate balance between flowing continuity and fair contest."

The board will continue to defend match officials - "It cannot be the referees alone who are responsible for detracting from the spectacle," said Pugh - but there is concern that some are whistling to their own agenda, rather than that laid down in the rulebook. Southern hemisphere officials, reared on the attacking free-for-all known as Super 12, have taken the brunt of recent criticism and the IRB intends to look closely at the issue. "There can be no excuse and no hiding place for referees who fail to apply the laws as they are written," the chairman warned.

Twickenham officials are addressing a decision by Richmond magistrates to deny them a one-hour, post-match public bar licence for both tomorrow's big occasion and the game against Argentina on 25 November. The application was opposed by Chief Superintendent Derek Cook, of Twickenham Police, and the leader of Richmond Borough Council, Sir David Williams, because of "public order implications".

Exasperated Twickenham sources pointed out that almost one million spectators attended matches at the ground last season, with just one arrest - and that was at Twickenham station following a low-profile services game. They also reported the findings of an independent poll in which 83 per cent of local residents said they had no particular problem with after-match drinking. Tomorrow's crowd will be handed leaflets urging them to challenge the magistrates' decision.

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