"Subs have been running roughshod all over the place, like a herd of buffalo".
Scotland have a pep in their step
England-Ireland at Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day looms large even from this distance as the probable Six Nations decider given the championship’s tendency to shrink into a two-horse race.
A reasonable assumption based on the fact that the old rivals go into the New Year second and third respectively in the official rankings behind the perennial world leaders in black. Wales, France and Italy give every appearance of also-rans but anyone discounting Scotland is unaware of an intriguing development since they gave the All Blacks a fearful hurry-up only a few weeks back.
They can now claim to have a new follower with a track record of leaving the rest so far behind he can hardly see them – Pep Guardiola. Gregor Townsend, not one to admire the laurels let alone sit on them, spent a day talking tactics at Manchester City’s training ground with the Spaniard responsible for reducing the Premier League to one long procession.
Townsend’s verdict on the visit, ‘inspirational’, ought to strengthen the conviction that Scotland will finally be getting round to making the tournament a three-horse race. After the best part of 20 years, they have realised there is more to Six Nations life than an annual squabble with Italy over a wooden spoon, or as they don’t call it in the back streets of Dundee, il cucchiaio di legno.
The Guardiola-Townsend alliance goes back to meetings at the Nou Camp when the latter ran Barcelona.
The shape of the ball may be different but the same principles apply about how to make the best use of it in a team like Scotland’s, eager to bring still more pace and precision to their high-tempo game.
Should they turn up for the opening match in Cardiff wearing sky blue instead of the traditional navy, the rest will have cause for alarm, not just Wales. England at Murrayfield on February 24 and Ireland in Dublin a fortnight later offer challenging possibilities.
The title will still be decided on St Patrick’s Day but perhaps in a way nobody can imagine, Scotland winning in Rome before England and Ireland leave their dressing rooms. Guardiola will be watching.
Ireland to reign in Spain
Between them, in what is now known as the Champions’ Cup, Munster and Leinster have appeared in seven finals and 19 semi-finals. Since 2003, both have reached the same last four on five occasions, most recently last season.
Their current progress towards securing home quarter-finals suggests there is every chance each will make the semis again this season. They have done just about everything there is to do except find a separate path to the final.
The trick this time will be to avoid knocking each other out at the penultimate hurdle, as Munster did to Leinster at Lansdowne Road in 2006 before the D4 brigade avenged that beating with one of their own at Croke Park five years later.
Clermont and Saracens, as always, will have something to say about that but if Ireland’s leading contenders were to go all the way and paint the Basque city of
Bilbao red and blue on the last weekend of May, nobody could say they hadn’t paid their dues.
“This isn’t soccer.”
Rugby has a fight on its hands to protect its most sacred rule, that players accept the referee’s decision without question in a manner that has allowed the sport to set an example to others. Depressingly, that is no longer the case.
If players are not abusing officials verbally on the field, there is ample evidence of them urging referees to sin-bin opponents as well as examples of players mocking opponents with a pat on the back or a ruffle of the hair at conceding a kickable penalty.
During the Ospreys-Scarlets derby in Swansea in October, Test referee John Lacey had to take the home captain, Alun-Wyn Jones, aside and tell him: “You want to stop people asking for cards.’’ When La Rochelle’s Kiwi wing Rene Ranger spoke out of turn to George Clancy, the Irish referee warned him: ‘’You can’t speak to a referee like that. The game is far more important than you and me.’’
Much the same happened to Mathieu Raynal during the Leicester-Munster tie at Welford Road. Forced to tell one Leicester player to ‘respect my call’, the French referee stopped the game to tell Tigers’ captain Tom Youngs: “Have a word with your players.’’
Rob Kearney shouted at a touch judge during the Leinster-Exeter match in Dublin. Ten minutes in the bin would have stopped him shouting. It’s about time the game helped itself by showing who’s boss and giving yellow cards for verbal abuse.
If not, then the best-known referee, Nigel Owens will no longer be able to admonish players by saying: “This isn’t soccer.”
Beware the bench press
Substitutes have been running roughshod all over the place, like a herd of buffalo stampeding in every Test match. The destruction they have caused and continue to do can be seen through the dust of their hooves.
The almost obligatory use of all 16 subs per international has disfigured the sport beyond demolishing the old core value about rugby being a game for all shapes and sizes. They have unhinged the very dynamic on which the sport was built, namely an 80-minute contest between one unchanging front row against another.
One would gain the upper hand in the set-scrum and create space for those behind. That tends not to happen now because almost every Test prop is programmed to last for less than an hour and then be replaced by a fresh front row.
Now, at long last, those in the corridors of power realise what they have done, that allowing coaches to change more than half their starting XV is doing the game more harm than good. As a result size and power has a crushing effect on speed and subtlety.
More enlightened figures like Welsh Rugby Union chairman Gareth Davies see that as one reason why casualty rates are spiraling out of control. Fewer subs, shifting the emphasis to speed over bulk, ought to clear the way for lighter players lasting longer.
Halving the number to four per team would take the game some way back towards where it used to be and create the room for a better spectacle.
If that is too revolutionary for some, then five ought to be the limit.
A break from screen time
Those wishing the TMO to go take a running jump would be very happy to wake up one morning soon and discover that the three initials have been removed from the sporting lexicon, that the acronym no longer stands for Television Match Official but The Man’s Out.
The most contentious verdict of the old year, the one that allowed the Lions to escape from New Zealand with a drawn series, provides the most striking example of how a system designed to ensure that justice is not only done but seen to be done too often ends up fog-bound in confusion.
When Romain Poite gave the All Blacks a penalty two minutes from the end of the final Test his decision rang like a death knell for the Lions. It kept ringing at the end of lengthy consultation with the blessed TMO, in this case, George Ayoub of Australia.
He ended up agreeing with the French referee, clearing Kieran Read of an aerial foul on Liam Williams a second or two earlier and reaffirming the penalty against Ken Owens handling the ball in an offside position.
That would have been that had one of Poite’s assistant referees, Jerome Garces, not piped up to suggest to his compatriot that it should be a scrum to New Zealand.
Poite calls the captains and tells them: “16 red (Owens). It was an accidental offside. We go for a scrum for black.’’
By changing his mind as well as the course of history, Poite ignored the TMO.
The referee is the sole arbiter although there have been other examples of the TMO calling the shots over red-card offences.
Too often too many referees opt for the safety net of technology rather than go with their gut instinct. Another French referee, Alexandre Ruiz, proved a glorious exception to the rule by handling the Ulster-Harlequins Champions’ Cup tie in Belfast as if unaware of the Man in the Van, sure enough in his own mind to do without video confirmation.
He, alas, is in a minority. At the opening game of the last World Cup, England-Fiji, South African referee Jaco Peyper passed the buck to the TMO six times, ensuring the match would run 20 minutes over time and forcing World Rugby into defensive mode.
“The objective of the TMO system is to ensure accurate and consistent decisions are made on the field in a timely and efficient manner,’’ they said.
“The TMO is a tool to help referees with their on-field calls and the referee remains the decision-maker in charge of the process.”
Then, of course, there are times when it is impossible to see if a try has been scored, when more replays create more confusion.
As if that’s not bad enough, there are occasions when the law prevents the referee going to the TMO as happened on the notorious occasion at Twickenham when Craig Joubert got it wrong over the penalty with which Australia knocked Scotland out of the semi-finals.
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