The New Year weekend seemed as good a time as any to feel positive about the future: if these annual celebrations are about anything, they're about hope.
So it was that I settled down to watch the Guinness Premiership action in a mood of high-minded optimism, only to be disappointed by many of the things I witnessed. Perhaps it was destined to turn out that way. After all, it is also the season for pantomimes.
With the trials, tribulations and negativity of 2009 behind us, I felt there was a chance that the first action of 2010 would offer something fresh. What did we see and hear? A lot of shouting and posturing, much of it from coaches and administrators, about problems in the game that would be much less problematic if more people worried less about what cannot be achieved and spent more time opening their minds to the sport's possibilities. Sadly, the spirit of acrimony continues to reign, particularly in England. How the rest of the world must be enjoying the spectacle.
Depressingly, refereeing is again at the forefront of the debate. Yes, there are frustrating inconsistencies, but union is an unusually difficult game for officials to manage, especially in and around the tackle area, and it is ludicrous to point the finger at one man and blame him for all ills. In the final analysis, the referee is not responsible for player indiscipline, tactical inadequacy or technical incompetency; nor is he the one who affects the nature of a game with substitutions that go wrong. I've seen examples of all this and more over in the space of two or three weeks. Not once did I think the ref might have something to do with it.
Unfortunately, there are times when the Premiership seems more like a "Mediocrityship". However, one or two of the more forward-thinking coaches have started to acknowledge that they must bear their share of responsibility in addressing the issues affecting the game at elite club level and, in addition, I'm delighted to see that referees are getting to grips with some of the more blatant offside tactics by policing the kick-chase part of the game more efficiently. This more determined approach opens up all sorts of counter-attacking opportunities to those with the right mindset.
Of course, some teams are almost hard-wired to kick the ball straight back to the opposition, irrespective of what might be on offer by keeping the ball in hand and using it intelligently. But others – Northampton and London Irish are the obvious examples – have shown themselves willing to play a little rugby, rather than stick with the anti-rugby. This is no surprise, given the presence of Jim Mallinder at Franklin's Gardens and Mike Catt at the Madejski Stadium. These are people who, as players and now as coaches, have an acute appreciation of the game's possibilities. They're successful, too. Look at the league table.
Interestingly, Leicester are also showing flashes of invention and ambition, largely through the southern hemisphere imports in their back three: Scott Hamilton, the New Zealander, and Lote Tuqiri, the Australian. It's fair to say that when most rugby folk think about the Tigers, they have a vision of a hard-bitten, well-organised forward pack squeezing the life out of opponents at close quarters. But often there is more to them than that – remember some of the stuff Austin Healey played in a Leicester shirt? – and it strikes me that in Tuqiri, a natural counter-attacker, and Hamilton, they have players who can see space and capitalise on it.
Ultimately, though, effective counter-attacking is not in the gift of a single individual or a pair of adventurous souls among the outside backs making spur-of-the-moment decisions. It is a state of mind, a mentality, and it is truly productive only when an entire team buys into it. Instead of being a peripheral notion – an ideal to which vague lip service is paid, but nothing more substantial – it should be a fundamental aspect of a club's approach. This means making it an integral part of preparation each and every week. Sadly, I find myself wondering whether more than a couple of leading teams bother with it at all.
Still, I live in hope that we enter a new decade standing on the brink of a revolution in attacking rugby. The likes of New Zealand and Australia showed us the way in the autumn and there have been isolated flashes of something similar in the Premiership. If that sounds unduly optimistic... well, as I said at the start, it's that time of year.
Shaw is a rare animal indeed
The more I watch Simon Shaw play a form of rugby that marks him out as one of the most gifted players in the sport, the more I'm tempted to call him the Peter Pan of the English game: the lock who refuses to grow up. Long may it continue. Simon is 36 now, and one of those rare professionals who knows what it was to be an amateur. He is equally rare in many other respects, to the extent that I wonder whether we have ever produced a more complete front-five forward.
Outstanding in his level of technical mastery and supremely athletic for such a big man, he has over the years developed a tactical nous and a significant degree of mental strength. Increasingly, he is showing himself as a shrewd and influential observer of the modern game and I have particularly enjoyed his sharp comments on rugby's pervasive gym culture and the current obsession with "following the playbook".
His performance for Wasps, albeit in defeat, against Newcastle last Sunday was exceptional. It was far from the most gripping match I've ever seen, but Simon gave it something by which it could be remembered.
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