To The Panic Stations!

Have England lost their nerve? England are going to take on Wales in their almost-knockout pool game this weekend with a midfield consisting of Owen Farrell, Sam Burgess and Brad Barritt. In that order. So that’s Barritt at 13 then. 

With Billy Vunipola also coming into the team it’s a whopping four changes from the team which performed pretty modestly against Fiji. Vunipola at least looked impressive off the bench (and Ben Morgan might be a smidgen injured) as did Slammin’ but Barritt was anonymous – in his favoured position.

Does it constitute a small bit of panic in the ranks? Stuart Barnes’ considered opinion was that a change in mindset rather than personnel was required, and that any move away from Ford at this stage opened the possibility of England crashing out. It appears a frankly remarkable move to about-turn on the Bath midfield axis which has driven England’s best performances over the last 12 months. Has George Ford’s stock really plummeted on the back of one faintly ponderous performance behind Ben Youngs’ sleepy service? And just what is it that the more mechanical Owen Farrell can really do so much better?
England scored 18 tries in the Six Nations with the Ford-Burrell-Joseph midfield. Burrell has been left at home, and of course Joseph’s injury denies England their best back. But it’s as if his absence has caused the coaches to say ‘well sod this anyway. Passing the ball around was hard enough with Joseph in the team, now we’ve no hope. Let’s switch to kick and bosh instead’. Henry Slade, meanwhile, holds tackle bags and Cipriani is at home.

It looks suspiciously like Lancaster has been sucked into the old classic that world cups require ‘cup rugby’, and that cup rugby mostly involves very little rugby at all. It’s a bit early to be tightening up to such a degree.

Most of all, though, it looks like a selection Wazza Gatland will be thrilled to see. Farrell at 10? Easy meat. Brad Barritt at 13? Dan Lydiate will line him up all day long. Surely the big Welsh oil tankers are better off being moved around? Certainly Sam Burgess has a bit about him and his his offloading game will have to be policed closely, but all told the number of threats is reduced. Anthony Watson? His best chance of getting the ball is from Welsh kicks. 

We had England down to win this match. But now we’re not so sure. Wales are a bit injured but if they can get something approaching parity in the scrums and lineouts – where England aren’t any great shakes either – and if Alun-Wyn Jones is fit enough, they might just edge this one. 

Either way, a titanic battle awaits, even if it won’t be all that pretty. Altogether now – Ooooooooooooooohhhhhh!!

Artists of the Floating World

The first weekend of the World Cup goes down as a huge success.  Well attended stadia full of raucous support, good rugby matches, Ireland looking good – and Japan.  Some are calling it the biggest upset in team sport… ever.  And they’re probably right.  Upsets in modern day rugby are hugely rare.  Even the thought of a supposedly top tier nation like Scotland toppling one of the giants would be fairly seismic.  For Japan to do so is simply out of this world.  What more can be said other than that it was unbelievable.

The victory was spectacular for so many reasons.  For the pugnacious refusal to lie down and be bullied by the Springboks.  Even when the Boks scored a try in the final quarter to amass a seven point lead, which looked to have ended the spirited fight, Japan responded – and spectacularly too.  For the bravery to go for the win rather than kick for the draw (though the kick was by no means a gimme so the draw wasn’t cast in stone).  For the even greater bravery to pass the ball along the gainline to set up the winning overlap.  And for the tactical acumen and cool-headed shrewdness shown in the heat of battle.  Not just in the final denoument, but in killing the ball deliberately (and cycnically!) when South Africa were camped on their line minutes previously.  A try for the Boks in that position would surely have won the game, but Japan had the wherewithal to kill the ball, suck up the three points and leave themselves in a position to go on and win.

But most of all, it was for the sheer skill and technique on view.  Smaller forwards Japan may have, but they showed that the skill of effective rucking is about accuracy and technique rather than big men simply bulldozing into rucks.  They supplied their jinky, pacey backline with a supply of quick ball that was enough to score three tries.  The handling skills in the backline were easily up to the task.

Much had been made in advance of the tournament of the work their scrum coach Marc del Maso has done to bring their scrum from being a shambles, to one of the best in the world.  It came to pass here as they won a scrum penalty in the dying minutes that kept the pressure on the Boks.  As if anyone needed telling, Eddie Jones is clearly some bit of stuff.  And this was his finest ever hour.

Muddy Wulliams made the point that the growth of the Top League in Japan and the benefits of more regular and higher-standard rugby raises all boats. Japan is a very rich country with well-resourced corporations putting money back into the sport – this means teams with such romantic names as Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers, NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes and Coca Cola West Red Sparks. While it would stick in the craw of AIL vets at Shanning and Garryowen, in rugby, money buys good stadia, full-time pros and Eddie Jones. While the status of the Top16 franchise in Japan (due to compete next year) is in flux, with Eddie Jones having thrown his hands up in despair and going to, ironically, the Stormers, its inevitable that it will happen some day. While Japan aren’t likely to become the new Argentina any time soon, they are equally unlikely to go 24 years without another RWC win.

Much like everyone watching we expect, WoC were running around their living rooms as if they were Japanese.  It would be nice to say ‘this is what the rugby world cup is all about’, but it’s not really.  This sort of thing simply never happens.  It made it all the sweeter, the greatest upset in the history of the sport.

The Pool of Death

There has to be at least one pool of death.  If we discount Italy, and it’s safe to do so, that leaves nine nations from the two principal global rugby tournaments fighting over eight quarter final places.  Add in the possibility of a wild-card nation like Samoa or Fiji turning up organised and motivated, and there’s scope for another.

In 2011, it was Scotland that found themselves edged out.  Before you start laughing at the notion of Scotland’s early exit being anything other than academic, recall that they lost to Argentina by a solitary point and had England on the rack for much of the match.  In fact, had they only to beat England they may well have done so, but they had to defeat them by seven or more, and as a result had to continue pressing on in a match they were leading.  England ran out lacklustre four-point winners.  In 2007, Ireland got lumped in with, and turfed out by, hosts France and a rampantly fired-up Argentina.

This time around, the quirky ranking system has left us with an absolutely dynamite pool involving Wales, England and Australia.  And as luck would have it, the PNC champions, Fiji, are in there too.  Just to make everything extra hard.  It’s a whopper.

Wales tend to do well in World Cups.  In 2003, they used the tournament to reignite themselves as a premier rugby nation and in 2011 they were brilliant for large parts of the competition and should have made the final.  They’re a steely, tough, physical side; efficient deployment of Warrenball is the name of the game.  They’ve a tendency to come up just short against the Southern Hemisphere big guns, but against their European comrades, they’re up with the best.  There’s little to choose between them, England and Ireland; look at the 2015 Six Nations log for proof.

But my word they are eviscerated by injury.  Already down Jonathan Davies, they have lost their metronomic plake kicker and foundation at the back, Leigh Halfpenny, as well as Rhys Webb, who was rapidly emerging as one of the game’s elite scrum halves.  To top this off, Alun-Wyn Jones – every bit as inspiration for Wales as Paul O’Connell is for Ireland – is struggling.  Assuming Jones pulls through in some shape or form, Webb looks the biggest loss.  Scott Williams is an able deputy for Davies.  Halfpenny can be replaced by Liam Williams (himself returning from – guess what? – injury) and they will lose little in attack, with Williams perhaps the more dangerous open-field runner.  And the place-kicking issue may not be as bad as feared, because Dan Biggar at fly-half is pretty accurate off the ground.

Scrum half will now be particularly interesting.  Don’t rule out the strange scenario where Mike Phillips returns from the dead as first choice, having been bumped entirely off the squad a few weeks back.  Given the size of his personality and influence around the squad, he’s hardy the kind of pick a coach would bring along to hold tackle pads, and it is reasonable to assume that in Webb’s absence, Gatland plays the experience card.  Phillips looked out of sorts against Ireland and is generally past his best, but the same issues didn’t stop Gatland picking him to start all three Lions tests two years ago.

England are the hosts, are in good health and have ambitions of overall victory.  Being hosts counts for a lot – Barnesy had it about right at the recent Sunday Times shindig in Lansdowne Road where he described it as being worth nine points a match. It’s hard to see the host nation bowing out in the group stages; the rule of thumb is that the hosts generally contest the final.  Anything less simply wouldn’t do.

The other big fish in the pond is Australia, current holders of the Rugby Championship.  Australian rugby hasn’t had it too good in recent years, and they reached something of a low ebb in losing a dire series against the Lions two years ago.  But since then, things have taken a turn for the better and they appear to have the right man in charge of them.  Irish fans, especially those from the blue bit, are familiar with Michael ‘Bull in a China Shop’ Cheika, and going by previous indiscretion levels around the squad, his ironclad style is just the requirement to get his best out of this group of players. .  The early signifiers are promising, not least a scrum that actually bossed New Zealand around in a big win, followed by a dismantling of a good Argentina side in the recent Championship.  And while Cheika is best known as a disciplinarian and all-round hard-nut, he is also a highly intelligent and universally respected rugby brain.

Here in WOC Towers, we were struggling to come to an agreement about how this one would pan out, but cursed injury to two of Wales’ best players has intervened, and now we’re aligned in thinking it’s hard to see Wales manufacturing the victory they need over either of the two heavyweights.  Palla had visions of the big three all beating each other and bonus points and cricket score-counts over Uruguay being required to settle the dispute.  And should that come to pass, England are well placed, because they go into their final game against Uruguay knowing just how many runs they have to score in the chase. But now we’re going for England and Australia to beat Wales and qualify.  But in what order?

England typically have Australia’s number, especially in Twickenham, but we’re going out on a limb and we’re tipping a Cheika-inspired Australia, having finally discovered a stable scrum, to wreak breakdown havoc and beat England. We are less than inspired by Lancaster’s use of the bench (Exhibit A – substitutions by numbers in the 2014 loss to France), and bringing on Wigglesworth, Farrell and Slammin’ Sam just seems wooden to us; why aren’t we seeing Care, Slade and Goode? Or Cipriani? Cheika might not have huge depth, but he knows how to use it better, and Genia, Cooper and Beale is a game-changing bench.

England have plenty going for them, not least a creative and explosive backline and a front-five that is typically English, but they lack one thing, and that’s a breakdown specialist on the flanks.  In this pool, they’re about to come up against no less than four of the world’s best ball-poaching opensides.  They’ve a hell of a job on getting the quick ball they need to get Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson running at space. They should do enough to beat Wales and Mike Philips the auxiliary blindside, but may come up short against the Wobs.  Matt Williams is concerned about the Aussies’ lack of any depth whatsoever – Kane Douglas is a squad member – but if their best players stay fit they have a side high on talent.  Think Stephen Moore, David Pocock, Michael Hooper, Matt Giteau and Israel Folau.

The big winner here is the humble punter.  The group stages often lack intensity.  The outcome in two pools is a foregone conclusion, and in the other (our pool) it is only the order of the qualifiers that needs to be resolved.  But here, we will see the World Cup hit boiling point early.  As early as the 26th September, when Wales take on England.  A week later England play Australia.  It’s knockout rugby come early.  And better yet, it’s a match with Anthony Watson and Israel Folau on the same pitch.

And what of Fiji? The PNC champions are here to upset the applecart and are apparently targeting Wales in their second game – it will be interesting to see how the Fijians approach the games. They are likely to contribute hugely to the opening game in a losing effort, but that might leave them vulnerable to a Wobbly bashing just 5 days later – a bonus point opportunity for Australia that Cheika is sure to gobble up. After that, it’s Wales, who were memorably beaten in 2007. However, less memorable was the 2011 tournament, were Wales beat them 66-0. Wales are vulnerable for sure, but if they are coming off a defeat to England, as we expect, this will be a virtual knockout for them – we think Fiji will come up short.

Just coming second in this pool is hard enough, but the carrot for winning it is huge.  The winners almost certainly face Scotland in the quarter-final and one of France, Ireland and Argentina in the semi-final.  Whoever gets the job done here has a great chance of going right to the end. We’re picking that team to be Australia.

The Michael Bent Effect

It’s all about Michael Bent. Everyone’s favourite hurl-carrying ambi-prop is going to be the pivotal character in how the World Cup squad is made up.

When the world switched to eight-man benches it appeared that the day of the ambi-prop was finished. JB Poux was carted off to retirement, Tom Court was ditched and their like would never be seen again. But with space at a premium in world cup squads, the man who can prop on both sides still has a value, albeit diminished.

So get comfortable folks, because Michael Bent is going to the World Cup, probably at the expense of David Kilcoyne and Pure Wexford Beef. If you were picking a team from just those three, chances are you would pick Kilcoyne and Furlong ahead of Bent, but the fact that Bent can cover both sides with a reasonable-ish level of competence makes him more valuable as a squad man. He passed his first test this weekend, when he continued Ireland’s scrum dominance when introduced for Mike Ross against Wales. He also got around the pitch to make seven tackles. As of now, Bent is in, we reckon. Better to make peace with it than begin weeping uncontrollably – we’ve already put our objections in ink (what’s the blog equivalent – underpants? – must ask Cummiskey some day) so our embarrassment will be complete when he shunts the Beast all around Twickers in the final.

Bringing Bent has the knock on effect of ensuring a 17-14 forwards-backs split, meaning four second rows and five backrow men, with sufficient room left to bring Ian Madigan appropriate cover in the back division, where there is a minimum requirement of six players to cover the half-backs, which leaves eight places to cover the centres and back three. It’s a tight squeeze, even with Bent in.

All of which means the make-up of the lock and backrow positions in the squad relatively straightforward after Tommy O’Donnell’s incredibly bad luck, with a couple of straight-up head to heads for the starting XV, both of which involve The New Willie John.

In the second row, Paul O’Connell and Devin Toner are going as incumbents. Iain Henderson we will stick in the second row camp for now, but more on him later. The final place is a straight-up shootout between Dan Tuohy (injury prone, good passer, eye for a gap) and Donncha Ryan (injury prone, destructive, force of nature). Not an easy one to call. Ryan was excellent on Saturday, but Tuohy came off the bench to good effect too. Ryan has a bit more test experience and might be ahead on points, but then Tuohy is well aware he face has not always fitted in the national team and has the according chips on both shoulders to call on. It’s a high calibre of player to be bringing along as the fourth lock, given Wales will need to make the (Hobson’s) choice between Dom Day and Jake Ball.

With five places in the backrow, we can be certain that the Six Nations first choices Jamie Heaslip, Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien are inked in – incredible that Heaslip, who is now Ireland’s most-capped back row of all time, is still not rated by some – thankfully Schmidt isn’t one of them. Chris Henry was injured for that tournament, but started all games in the previous Six Nations, when O’Brien was injured, and it seems highly unlikely Schmidt wouldn’t bring him. Schmidt has rated Henry highly since his days at Leinster, which included game-planning for him in the 2012 HEC final, and he brings a complimentary skill on the flank to the others.

With Rhys Ruddock injured, the last spot seemed to be a tussle between Tommy O’Donnell and Jordi Murphy until O’Donnell got carted off after an impressive game against the Welsh waxworks. A pity, he played really well, but then again Murphy’s ability to cover No.8 – lacking elsewhere in the squad, unless you figure Peter O’Mahony could perform the role, but it’s been a long time since he has – might just have swung it in his favour anyway.

The main issue is who to pick in the first team once Ireland get there. Iain Henderson wasn’t quite at his swashbuckling best against Wales, but he did give one superb offload near the try-line. There is an argument that Henderson as it his best is almost impossible to leave out, but it’s not quite that simple. Schmidt as we know, selects players to perform the particulars of his role in the team to an exceptional standard. Toner and O’Mahony have accomplished this without question and are currently fixtures in the XV.

Henderson, for all his explosive talent, still has a rawness about him. A couple of barnstorming ‘Big Runs’ isn’t going to sway Schmidt either way. The key to whether Hendy gets selected or not probably depends on how much rope Schmidt gives his men to pass out of the tackle. So far he has been reticent to give them any at all, but if he does open up this approach to attack, there is nobody better in the Ireland squad at doing it. For now, though, chances are we will see Toner, O’Connell, O’Mahony, O’Brien and Heaslip as starters with the Ulstermen Henderson and Henry in reserve and Ryan and Murphy on pad-holding duty.

Still, with Henderson as talented and influential as he has become at just 23 (!), one can’t help but feel all it will take is one subdued performance by Toner or O’Mahony and the clamour to unleassh the llama will begin. Who would Kaino, Hooper or Burger rather face – O’Mahony or Henderson? And who would Retallick, Etzebeth or Skelton – Toner or Henderson? We don’t quite know, but Hendy does offer a tantalising glimpse of something world class. Willie John himself said that when he first got picked for Ireland it was because “the previous guy died or something” – the possibilities offered by Henderson’s rare talent are huge, and we sometimes wonder are we missing a trick leaving him on the bench?  Nice problem for Schmidt to have though.

Let’s Get Warmed Up

And so, this weekend, begins Ireland’s World Cup campaign, with what should be a good hit-out away to Wales.

As Gerry outlined to good effect this morning, it’s customary for Ireland to perform dreadfully in these world cup warm-ups, but how much meaning should be attached to that dreadfulness is hard to gauge. Eight years ago, Ireland carried awful form into the World Cup and simply never got going.

Four years ago the same happened, with Kidney forced into the drastic action of dropping entirely the one scrum half he had staked all his chips on playing into form. But Kidney’s team were an emotionally driven side, and seemed to thrive most when they appeared at their lowest ebb, and the sense of looming crisis ultimately played into their favour, in the pool games at least, before the tournament came crashing down in the quarter-finals.

Schmidt’s brood are the opposite, so if absolutely nothing is working well and Ireland conspire to lose all their warm-up games, then it probably is a cause for concern. Joe will be looking for signs that his charges are capable of playing to whatever instruction he has deemed the order of the day for this upcoming, monumental challenge. Just what that is remains to be seen. Schmidt has earned the reputation of a ruthless pragmatist over the course of two Six Nations campaigns, with a strategy high on aerial bombardment and low on offloading, but it’s worth recalling that in the last 120 minutes of the 2015 Six Nations campaign, with Ireland required to chase a Welsh lead, and build a large points haul against Scotland, they kept the ball in hand to great effect. Will he stick to that approach in the World Cup?

Ireland have four warm-up games, but in reality it’s a six (maybe seven depending on Sergio Parisse’s fitness)-match lead-in before the real stuff begins, because the first pool games are against the minnows. So there’s no need to panic if – as seems likely – Ireland play with a total lack of cohesion this weekend. There’s time yet to get the form going.

For all that, though, it’s a nice enough looking team Schmidt has put out; his strongest available props, a spine of experience and plenty of ‘nice to have you back’ uplift from players who missed large chunks of last season. And as usual, there’s plenty of scope for looking out to see who is ‘putting their hands up’ for the last few places in the world cup squad.

Donncha Ryan, Keith Earls, Andrew Trimble and Fergus McFadden are all welcome returnees. Ryan is in a face-off with Tuohy for the last second row place, so he gets a chance to put down a marker of some sort. Terrific, aggressive players both, but prone to injury, it may be a literal case of survival of the fittest. Tuohy is on the bench.  Keith Earls is selected at 13, which will cause frothing in several quarters (welcome back Leinsterlion), but it’s worth remembering that while he is not the complete outside centre by any means, he’s not bad either; try focussing on what he does well there rather than what he doesn’t. He’s a player Schmidt has referenced a lot while he’s been injured, so this is a welcome opportunity to see him in green.  With a maximum of 14 backs making the final cut, there is a premium on versatility, and if Earls can capably cover centre and wing, it puts him in the box-seat.

Trimble was last seen winning all sorts of awards, and is now an established ‘Schmidt favourite’. If he can get back even a shard of the form he had before injury, he can be a huge player this World Cup. McFadden’s chances of making the touring party look more remote, but it will be nice to see a few head-first charges into Welsh tacklers anyway.

The half-back pairing looks nice: Reddan and Jackson. They’re most likely going to be Ireland’s test-match back-ups so it’s time they got to know each other a little better. Jackson was playing quite beautifully at the end of the season. If he can produce that form again he can not only establish himself as first reserve, but become a player worth introducing from the bench for material impact.

In the pack, the main cause for excitement will be Iain Henderson’s selection. His wild, unrestrained style is a thing to behold and his form towards the back end of last season was astonishing. We’ll talk more on the topic next week, but he could make an unanswerable case for test XV selection. The backrow is light on size, but high on work-rate. Jamie Heaslip is flanked by O’Donnell and Jordi Murphy, who, conventional wisdom has it, are auditioning for the last back-row berth in the squad. Don’t be afraid to pass to each other, boys.

The Milky Bars Are On Him

We’re breaking from our customary summer sabbatical because an important bit of news broke yesterday. Joe Schmidt signed a contract extension to stay on as head coach until 2017. Hip hip! There were a couple of amusing red herrings in the announcement lead-up. Fangio reported that Schmidt’s extension was for eight years (eight!), and the presence of the Lions rugby handle on a Peter O’Reilly tweet had people speculating that Schmidt was being given the Lions gig a full two years in advance.

It seems to be now customary for the good people at the IRFU to extend the coaching ticket’s contract before – and not after – the world cup. It’s a double edged sword, and hasn’t necessarily worked out in the past, but also a tricky balancing act we can have some sympathy with. Renew the coach’s contract and it bears the hallmark of a reward before he’s even passed his exams; leave him hanging and the coach spends half the press conferences fielding questions about his future, and if things go well (heaven forbid!) he’s open to being whisked away by another paymaster.

The IRFU gave Eddie a whopping four-year contract before the 2007 World Cup, when his stock was at an all-time high following a stupendous autumn and a Six Nations lost only on points difference, only to see the bottom fall out of his team in the tournament itself. They appeared to learn by degrees and heading into 2011’s Grand Shindig they gave Kidney and his coaching team, which was held in high esteem to be fair, a mere two year extension. It looked a slightly dubious move, as Kidney’s coaching style and conservative selection was already looking its age, and his team were capable of mixing the good with the truly awful. The performance in the World Cup was a rollercoaster affair, starting and ending abysmally but with spectacular highs in the middle but after that the only way was down, and although Kidney hung on to see out his two year extension, his tenure fairly petered out.

On the face of it, the IRFU’s obvious concern in this case would appear to be Joe Schmidt leaving for his homeland nation, New Zealand. The Kiwi coach is universally admired and regarded as one of the best coaches in world rugby, and might be on the all-consuming rugby nation’s radar as a potential replacement should Steve Hansen decide to rest on his laurels after winning the World Cup later this year.  Schmidt was contracted until the end of the 2016 Six Nations, rather than the end of the World Cup, but that would be no huge barrier to him switching to New Zealand, where the Rugby Championship only kicks off in July.

In Ruchie’s (excellent) book, he talked at length about the huge premium BNZ put on players and coaches being at home, within the system – there is huge emphasis put on building structures, from school to club to Air BNZ Cup to Super Rugby to the <insert hackneyed colour-driven marketing tool team name here>. If you leave BNZ, you are out of the game. Deeeen Caddah got very special dispensation to spend six months on the medical couch in Perpignan, but Dingo Deans, who took the Wobbly job after being passed over for Graham Henry after RWC07, was told he could forget about the BNZ job forever if he left.

We’re not sure if BNZ would appoint a new coach direct from Northern Hemisphere rugby without a few years penance in Super Rugby – sure, Schmidt was assistant at the Blues ten years ago, but we suspect some lip service would need to be shown. Still, the IRFU would be foolish to bank on that, and the point stands – BNZ would look to bring him home at some point.

The new contract leaves Schmidt with the option to be brought home by the NZRU for the 2018 and 2019 SR seasons and take over BNZ after RWC19 – it’s called “succession planning” and will probably never work – but the Union are right to hedge against the less likely possibility of him being sniped right away.

So, for Ireland, three times a charm, then? Hopefully, and with back to back Six Nations under his belt and having appeared to solve the two most demanding riddles associated with this, and any, Ireland team: how to get them to perform to a consistent base level, and how to overcome their innate inability to beat France, Schmidt is surely set to oversee Ireland’s first properly decent World Cup attempt, and there appears no earthy reason why he can’t continue to excel beyond that.

It also leaves him free to take on the Lions Tour in New Zealand, should he be daft enough to take on what from this distance appears to be a tour that can only irreparably break the reputation of whoever chooses to take it on. Best leave that one to Wazza. After all, he did so well on the last tour and seems to enjoy the wretched thing, and if Schmidt does have ambitions to coach BNZ, best not to show them up too publicly.

Law Re-Emphasising

With rugby struggling under the sheer mass of its players and the negativity of much of the tactics employed – or at least the most successful tactics – it appears certain that a rash of law changes – or should that be changes in law emphasis – are on the way.

Consensus is that nothing will be done until after the World Cup. It’s too close to the Grand Shindig to start experimenting now. The IRB caused a bit of a ruckus in the past when they asked referees to ensure there was clear daylight between the tackle being completed and the tackler competing for the ball on the ground, between rounds two and three of the Six Nations. We all remember the image of O’Driscoll and Wallace looking aghast as a penalty was awarded against Wally when he had his feet planted on the ground. The week prior Wally would have won the penalty.

So that won’t be happening, but we can expect a comprehensive post-world cup review. The trouble with these law changes is they are all subject to game theoretic issues. Take the laws around what happens after the tackle: load the dice too far in favour of the defensive team and it’s obvious what will happen. But load the dice too heavily in favour of the attacking team and the defensive side will simply reserve the right not to compete. Why chase a losing cause when you can keep all your defenders in a line and fan out across the pitch? Which will bring us back to where we started. It’s a balance that’s nigh on impossible to strike.

The areas most likely up for review are the ruck, the maul and, obviously, the scrum. Issues around tackle height and the choke tackle may also be up for debate.

The Maul

Once the maul is set it’s difficult for the defending team to deal with, as the attacking team is allowed to twist the maul ninety degrees and so long as one opponent remains bound, the ref shouts ‘same maul’ and the thing trundles forward. Sacking the maul at source or refusing to compete are the best options available for teams defending lineouts close to the try-line. To some, refusing to defend a maul is against the spirit of the game, but it is hard to deny a team their entitlement to do so. Besides, the attacking team only has to delay the transfer of the ball to the back of their wedge; if they keep it in front they can simply walk forward. It seems more than likely that attacking teams will start to denude this threat by better managing their ball transfer.

Scrum

The scrum remains a mess, but chances are any changes will be to what happens after a scrum failure than to the technicalities of how the front rows mash into one another. Possibilities include downgrading of certain offences to stopping the match-clock for resets or simply cutting out resets altogether, awarding a free kick to one orother team after one scrum failure.

The Ruck

There might be 10-20 scrums in a game, and a similar number of mauls and lineouts, but there are over 100 rucks, so what exactly is or isn’t allowed to happen once a player is tackled has a huge bearing on the game. One thing that may well come up for review is the much vaunted ‘golden metre’ where the attacking team tries to ruck far beyond the ball and effectively move the ruck forward. This used to be called ‘going over the top’ and was illegal. The main barrier to this is that the Kiwis are the best in the world at it, and they will whinge and moan a lot if it comes under threat. Clearing out by lifting legs into the air may also be reviewed; this resulted in a sending off offence for Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey recently, but it’s not really clear what is and isn’t allowed.

The Tackle

The choke-tackle whingeing by teams who are often exposed by it has begun, and chances are this will at least come under the microscope. But outlawing it seems ridiculous. It could be made harder to execute by lowering the tackle-height, but it would need to be demonstrated that tackling at chest height has a direct impact on player safety.

The Twitter Apology

With all this new-fangled social media carry-on, the latest fad among rugby players is to take to twitter to publicly apologise to afflicted players for acts of foul play. Two recent proponents have been Pascal Pape, who took to the twitter machine to apologise to Jamie Heaslip for his knee in the back incident, and Ashley Johnson of Wasps, who performed a similar act of manly contrition after he took Dave Kearney out in the air in the ERCC a few weeks ago.

It’s all a bit glib for our tastes, frankly. If Pascal Pape is indeed sorry for his actions, he should say it directly to Jamie Heaslip, rather than taking to public fora to do so. It’s all very well publically showing yourself to be a jolly good fellow but it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s all a bit of PR spin, and something the lawyers can point to in the disciplinary hearing to get a more lenient sentence. Who’s to say their coaches didn’t tell them to do it? As it happens, Pape’s ‘remorse’ got his ban reduced from 15 to 10 weeks. One thing that couldn’t have been in Pape’s favour is his disciplinary record, which stands at 28 career yellow cards and two reds. Nice going.

It also forces the hand of the injured party to be seen to be equally manly, and accept the apology in a display of solidarity in the name of rugger, or risk being seen to be a prancing prima donna better suited to roundball. Far better to appear gracious than get into some sort of unedifying spat. ‘No problems, old chap, it’s a physical game and these things happen’, replied Jamie Heaslip, or words to that effect. What he probably would have liked to say was ‘Listen here Pascal, I’m out of the Six Nations with three fractured vertebrae, so thanks for that. It’s a physical enough game as it is without deliberately kneeing other players in the back. Next time you’re entering a maul, try to keep the old knees down a bit so as to cause fewer spinal injuries.’

Those who appear to get the most out of these risible stunts are certain fans, who instantly get all excited and quickly begin to applaud everyone involved, and rejoice at the sheer manliness and jolly-hockeysticks bravado of it all. How noble of Pape! How gracious of Heaslip! How manly these chaps are! Truly, rugger is the king of sports, where you can break a chap’s back and all is forgiven because it’s all in such great spirit! But really, it’s little more than self-satisfaction; the reality is they’re patting themselves on the back for the magnificent act of being a fan of such a ruddy great sport. After all, this sort of boys-will-be-boys mateyness would never happen with soccer players, the filthy oiks!  Truly, they lack the appopriate levels of manliness!

But if people want to celebrate this most noble spirit of egregious foul play followed by easy apology-making, count us out. Leave it to the citing commissioners to dole out the punishments, and if there are apologies to be made, keep them private, rather than looking for kudos from the public.

Crouch, Grapple, Fall Over

Rugby is in trouble, if the vast amount of print and blog-space devoted to pieces lamenting the state of the modern game are anything to go by. We wrote about it ourselves recently, decrying a game that has become so systems based as to be robotic. The Guardian has a piece this week in which several players from bygone eras try to make sense of what the game they loved and played has become, and Alan Quinlan wrote a thoughtful piece along similar lines to our own, noting how players have become slaves to systems and individual flair has been wiped out of the game. Ireland’s stupefyingly dull but ultimately winning rugby in their last two games have rammed the message home.

It’s hard to argue with most of it, and at the very heart of things when it comes to pig-ugly awfulness lies the scrum. Let’s just come out and say it: the scrum is a blight on the game of rugby. What is supposed to be a means of re-starting the game after one team makes a mistake has somehow evolved into an interminable wait followed by an unwatchable, dangerous melange of pushing, grappling and, mostly, falling over; it’s become a licence for huge men to cheat and con the referee into thinking they’re doing the right thing, and a chance to milk penalties from the opposition. And worst of all, nobody understands it. How many times in the last year have you watched a scrum go down, heard the shrill blast of the referee’s whistle and then waited expectantly to see which arm he throws skywards, with no real idea which way it’s going to go. Have your team won a penalty, or conceded one? Who the hell knows?! It’s a random number generator. Northampton marched to a Heineken Cup final is 2011 on the back of a scrum that all commentators agreed was illegal, and yet they got away with it throughout the entire year, and beyond.

With two children apiece, both Egg and Palla are frequent users of the record and live-pause functions on their tellyboxes. Confession time. Palla will quite happily admit that if he’s a few minutes behind real time, he’ll use the endless scrum resets as a means to catch up. It’s easy: simply hold down the fast forward button (x6 works best)until you see the players are running again and the dreaded set piece is over. Another confession: when Leinster or Ireland have knocked on and their opponents are playing with advantage, Palla secretly wants them to get over the advantage line so at least he doesn’t have to endure yet another interminable scrum. Hoping one’s own team concede ground?! What has the world come to? But yes, it’s really become that dire.

The problem is that the more they try to fix the scrum, the more broken it becomes. Putting the defending team five metres behind the hindmost foot has had a detrimental effect. It was designed to make it a better attacking platform, but the unintended consequence has come to pass. It makes it such a good attacking platform that the defending team dare not offer it to the opposition; better to simply sink the scrum umpteen times and take your chances that you’ll break even in penalties over the course of a match. Sure, the ref hasn’t a clue what’s going on anyway.

The other consequence of the scrum is it slows the game down to a crawl. It takes an age to set up in the first place, and drags on interminably if it collapses a couple of times, which it usually does. This has other consequences, and brings us back to the points made by Quinlan and others. Punctuating a match with so many lengthy stoppages to set the scrum up (and, to a lesser extent, the lineout) allows the modern-day behemoth gym monkeys a chance to get their breath back. If we are concerned about the sheer size of players and the lack of flair on view in test rugby, every opportunity must be taken to speed the game up. It’s a faster game that tires out bigger men, and results in speedsters being given the opportunity to find mismatches and space into which to run. The scrum simply places a premium on huge, hulking 130kg monsters and further reduces the value of those who are lighter, fleeter of foot, or liable to throw the ball to another player.

The new scrum calls have, to be completely fair, marginally improved matters, but not to any great effect. Most scrums still collapse a number of times before a penalty or free-kick eventually results. This is a problem without an easy fix. We can’t provide a catch-all solution. What nobody wants is a reversion to uncontested scrums such as in rugby league. No, please, not that.

But one solution that might help would be to at least reduce the stakes of losing a scrum. The majority of technical scrum infringements should be downgraded from a penalty to a free-kick. It has never made sense that the simple error of slipping a bind – losing one’s grip while trying to grab a hold of modern day jerseys which are custom designed to be impossible to hold onto in the first place– should merit the same punishment as cynically killing the ball on your own five-metre line. If one team enjoys scrum dominance over another they can still exploit it by marching their opponents down the pitch, and using the platform to unleash their three-quarters, so the chances of this law denuding the importance of props would be slim. Besides, heavy set chaps would still be required to lift in the lineout. But it would at least reduce the multitudinous, seemingly random array of three-pointers that have begun to take on a disproportional importance in deciding the outcomes of rugby matches.

Tuesday Shorts

Ashley Johnson should have walked

Wasps v Leinster rather lived up to its billing; Egg thought Wasps would squeak it, Palla thought Leinster would edge out a win, so a draw seemed appropriate because y’know, on average we’re always right. The outcome would have surely been different, however, had Ashley Johnson been sent off in the first moments of the game. Make no mistake, he should have been. In last year’s quarter-final at Ravenhill, the very same referee gave himself no shortage of time to arrive at his decision to send off Jared Payne. The decision looked, on balance, just about correct, though to be fair to Payne he had been a little unlucky and appeared to slip. Johnson had no such excuse; this was reckless play of the highest order. Yet Garces appeared to make up his mind that it was a yellow card too quickly. Sure, he went to the TMO but he already had his hand on the yellow almost as soon as he blew the whistle. The outcome for the sinned against party shouldn’t be overly influential in these incidents, but the fact that Kearney had to leave the field injured, and now misses a decent chunk of the Six Nations, only served to highlight exactly why this sort of challenge has to be punished appropriately.  Johnson took time to apologise to Kearney on twitter, which was all very manly and sporting, but not very relevant in the grand scheme of things.

Round Six Jollies

The last round had a bit of everything, and was the best final round of pool matches in some time. Credit must go to several teams who had nothing meaningful to play for, but who upheld the tournament’s credibility, chief among them Ulster, who finally showed some of their quality, and Montpellier, who endured a tawdry campaign but refused to roll over against Toulouse. Things reached a fantastic crescendo on Sunday afternoon when, in the dying minutes of the Bath v Glasgow and Montpellier v Toulouse matches, any of three teams were within a score of going through or not. Not only that, but the fortunes of Leinster, Wasps and Saracens were hinging on events too. It was riveting. This viewer found himself channel-hopping from one to the other at every pause in play. It was certainly good enough to gloss over Craig Doyle calling Martin Bayfield ‘Bayfs’.

Pro12 Finale

The Pro12 has made a brave, almost certainly foolhardy gambit by announcing the final will take place in Ravenspan regardless of the finalists. The Top14 finale is in Paris, the Aviva final is in Twickers, so why can’t we join the party? Well, for a start getting to Belfast requires an overseas journey for fans of eight of the twelve teams in the competition. Presumably, the fact that the Champions’ Cup final is in early May is feeding into their thinking. It put enough distance between it and the Pro12 final to, hopefully, generate the kind of enthusiasm required to fill the ground. For all that, though, the organisers will be hoping at least one of De Oirish Provinces makes it. A Glasgow v Ospreys final could be a rather empty affair.

Half-back Concerns for Joe

Losing Jonny Sexton for the Italy game is one thing, but to be without Conor Murray would compound things further.  On top of that, throw in an injury to Eoin Reddan and we would be looking at a half-back partnership of Marmion and either Madigan ort Keatley.  The Irish camp are maintaining an omerta on the issue.  Maddog picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue and his placekicking, superb all season, went wonky at the worst possible moment in the heat of the Wasps match.  It’s all a bit concerning.  Marmion is a fine player, but a greenhorn at test level, while Madigan has played most of his rugby at 12 this season, albeit that he has done well.  Could we see the Wolfhounds game used to give them a chance to familiarise themselves with one another?  With O’Brien and Healy, and possibly Henderson also featuring, maybe Joe should use the match to give his full XV a dry run?