What's what is more important than who's who

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The Independent Online

As tall stories go, it was a whopper. Peter Kinder Stagg, at 6ft 10in, was the tallest man ever to play international rugby when he was first capped for Scotland in 1965, until he was matched but not outstripped 26 years later, by Martin Bayfield. Stagg was a curiosity in more ways than one, and although the match programme notes referred to his Dutch ancestry, there was no mention of any Scottish connections. His response to a question on the subject was witheringly brief and to the point - "You should know," he said in flawless Oxford English, "that I had never heard of Scotland until I played for the bastards."

The matter of eligibility has now gone past a joke, and cartoons such as appeared in the mid-Fifties, when the Scots were enduring a particularly barren period, depicting players in grass skirts queueing up outside Murrayfield waiting for a trial, though cruelly apt today, will not in future be relevant. Of the many issues to be discussed and decided upon at the annual meeting of the International Rugby Board in Dublin this week, we can assume that this one will, once and for all, be laid to rest. It has been a huge embarrassment but, as with all spectacular cock-ups, the flip side has been uproarious. It is hard to know whether the North Walians or the burghers of Oldham are more outraged by the assertion of Brett Sinkinson's agent that a Lancashire town is, in fact, a suburb of Wales.

Consensus on other matters may, however, be more of a problem for the IRB. It promises to be another turbulent week. Just because the vast majority of rugby followers are sick and tired of the political battles which have bedevilled the game for the past five years doesn't mean, alas, that the problems have disappeared. On the contrary. There are claims and counter-claims ofdouble-dealing, deceit and dishonesty. There are disagreements still between the home countries on the valuation of the television income, over the scheduling of the pre-Christmas internationals and, on the wider front, over what is described as a black hole in the Rugby World Cup accounts . But these are likely to be minor skirmishes (the RWC accounts are likely to exceed all expectations) compared with the continuing dogfight over the domestic structure.

Tom Walkinshaw, the owner of Gloucester, thwarted in his plans for a British league, is back with proposals to revive the Anglo-Welsh Alliance. He is also challenging the Rugby Football Union's right to ditch his ideas in favour of Rob Andrew's proposals for regional franchises. The wind beneath Walkin- shaw's wings is blowing strongly from some quarters of Twickenham, where the notion of peaceful coexistence and co-operation with the other home unions does not appear to be on the agenda.

At some stage, no doubt, the administrators will get round to discussing rugby and its laws. As they stand, they are a mess. The game resembles one of those ludicroushybrid vehicles in which the frame of a Mini is perched on top of the wheels of a JCB. With its defensive chain strung out across the field, combined with its growing obsession for body armour, it is a grotesque cross between rugby league and American football. Personally, I would put any forward wearing a helmet permanently in the sin-bin and any back with the same gear in the local lacrosse team.

The tackle law requires urgentattention, if only in the policing of it, but it will never be satisfactorily resolved until there is radical change, which might even mean a reversion to playing the ball with the foot after the tackle.

The pleas of the French coach, Bernard Laporte, last week concerning the overloading of the top players and the threat of burn-out as a result of the increasing brutality of the exchanges should not go unheeded, although with the public's insatiable desire for explosive action and so many prospectors chasing a diminishing pot of gold, that may be easier said than done.

If the shape of the game is changing, so it seems is the shape of those playing it. Very soon, as a result of the line-out and scrummage laws, we will have a standard size of forward weighing 16-18st and measuring 6ft 4in-6ft 7in. The short, fat hairy one is as endangered a species as the smooth beanpole. The proliferation of replacements and their tactical impact are also causes for concern, and there are other things which rankle.

The laws of the game should, to some extent, conform to the laws of nature, and it is surely against all a player's instincts to allow opponents a free passage through the defence, unless of course he happens to be Emile Ntamack, whose superb impression of a traffic light permanently on green in Paris last week was much appreciated by all Ireland, and in particular by Brian O'Driscoll. All power to Matt Dawson for turning the tap penalty into an art form, but the law in this respect is flawed, particularly when the tactic is used to gain ground in order to bring the goalposts into kicking range. Similarly, the line-out and the propulsion of the jumpers into the stratosphere is a nonsense. A start could at least be made byrevoking the law giving the side kicking to touch from a penalty the throw-in to the ensuing line-out. This would put an end to the absurdity of sides kicking for touch a yard away from their opponents' line.

Finally, is it me and my imagination or does almost every threequarter move now include at least one instance of obstruction by a decoy player running in front of the ball-carrier? I hope to God that my eyes are not getting as tired as my patience.

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