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Saturday March 08 2008

I’m watching the rugby.  The closing stages of France v England a fortnight ago were pleasing for England, because they – we - won, but dull for a neutral and infuriating for the French, because there was nothing the rules allowed them to do.  They just had to wait for the England forwards to make a mistake, which they didn’t.  That all this happened on the French line and that England finally got a try only disguised the basic dullness of what was happening.

The problem is the “loose”.  If a team is trying to run down the clock, the bloke with the ball can just bludgeon forwards for a yard or two, fall to the ground, hand the ball backwards to the fellows behind, who can then stop everything just as it’s about to come out into open play, and repeat at will.  At the point when the ball is just about to come out of the scrum, there’s nothing the non-possessing team are allowed to do about it, and nothing the possessing team – you can’t call them “attacking” - is obliged to do about it.

And now Wales have just done the exact same thing at the very end of their game against Ireland.  What should have been an enthralling finish, with Ireland desperately trying to score a try and turn it around, instead became a simple matter of waiting for 80.00 to show up on the timer in the top left corner of the TV screen, as the Welsh forwards took it in turns to bludgeon and hand back, hold, bludgeon and hand back, hold, etc. etc. etc., boring boring boring. 

Don’t ask me to explain the details of what the rules are now and why they allow all this, but they will surely have to be changed to stop this tedium.

UPDATE: At the end of the Scotland England game it looked as if Scotland were about to do the exact same thing, but being a bad side, and what with it being very wet and all, they couldn’t do it.  Instead they had to rely on England’s subsequent and final attack failing.  Since all previous England attacks for the last hour or more had failed, this was a good bet and Scotland duly won, because they had a better goalkicker than England.  England’s lack of attacking punch means that the knives will now surely be out for Ashton.  England only seem to be able to play well nowadays when nothing is expected of them.

I reckon Ashton’s basic problem is that on telly, he just looks like an old grump.  So, people reckon he can’t be very inspiring, even if he is, and even if, actually, the players can do their own self-inspiring.  At least Woodward looked a little bit stylish and vaguely happy.  What’s the betting Ashton’s replacement, if they decide to have one, is a foreigner?

Rule changes are being evaluated. Most are being used in the Super14, and there is a good chance that that set will be used in the TriNations.

Posted by Errol on 08 March 2008

It just needs a change in tackling technique by the defenders.  They try to push the attackers down because that’s the sensible thing to do if the attackers are genuinely attacking. But they are not, so the defenders should start from a lower body position and tackle with the intention of pushing the attacker upwards, so exposing the ball and even inviting the attempt to offload.  Alternatively, don’t tackle at all; let the attacker and, usually, his chum fall to earth and see if you can then drive over them and ruck the ball back.  What the defence does at the moment plays into the hands of the attack.

Posted by dearieme on 09 March 2008

There may have been a rule change that has made this technique profitable: better enforcement of not coming at the side (I believe there was a switch to “coming from behind the last player in the ruck,” which must have had an effect), the changes in who gets the put in when the ball is trapped (it changed a couple of times from “team going forward” to “use it or lose it"). If so, amending the law makes sense.

However, as with lineouts, where lifting initially gave a massive advantage to the side taking the throw, it may be a case of coaches and players figuring out new tactics. In 2005, the Welsh especially, appeared to have pioneered tactics for disrupting opposition line-outs. My impression is that counter-rucking is being adopted by the French, Scots and Welsh, with some success. Perhaps the referee telling the team in possession to get a move on (the English ref did this to the Italians yesterday) and threatening to give a scrum to the defenders would help.

Part of the reason for the negative play is because of the way Ireland lost to France last year at Croke Park: a try scored in about 20 seconds from a restart. No team wants to lose that way again.

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 10 March 2008

Looking at this weekend. The Italy v Scotland match could be even. The drama of England v Ireland is that if England lose, I’m fairly sure Ashton gets the boot. If Ireland lose badly, I reckon O’Sullivan deserves the boot, but there is a doubt that the Irish RU can afford to buy out his extended contract.

Before sacking Ashton, has anyone thought about his record? His team has played France FIVE times in the past year, winning all three competitive matches (including a World Cup semi-final) and losing both friendlies. Apart from the pride of winning in the Marseille Velodrome, I think most French people would gladly swap this sequence with England.

Although it might be premature for Italy (more so than Scotland) to decide a change at the top is needed, the loser might have a new boss soon. Mallet has not replaced Berbizier that well and Scotland continue to look worse than a mediocre Ireland, which can’t be what the SRFU have in mind.

Wales v France should be entertaining, whatever the result. Barring a horrendous refereeing decision which turns the game, I’m looking forward to a classic. And the BBC, like a lot of the media has the wrong figure for France’s target: either beat Wales by at least 20 points, or beat Wales by 19 including and at least one more try than Wales.

Welsh discipline could be the problem. If anyone thinks France will allow two Welsh players to have sessions in the sin bin without scoring a try each time…

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 11 March 2008

Apart from the pride of winning in the Marseille Velodrome, I think most French people would gladly swap this sequence with England

To change the sport, I think there are very few football fans in Europe who would not swap their team’s performances with those of Liverpool over the past four years. (If I were a Liverpool supporter, I would have had a good evening, too). On that basis, do you think Mr Benitez should lose his job?

Posted by Michael Jennings on 12 March 2008

Rafael Benitez appears incapable of putting together a squad able to come within 20 points of winning the premiership.

On the other hand, even Jose Mourinho, to say nothing of Professor Wenger, would be proud of the record of Benitez in Europe: 2004, UEFA Cup winner at Valencia; 2005, Champions’ League winner at Liverpool; 2006, Champions’ League, out in first knock-out stage; 2007, Champions’ League finalist; and 2008, Champions’ League quarter-final at least.

My guess is we need a UK manager, and a Europe manager. There are problems with this, but the right bonus system for the two managers should make them work together (say a big payout to BOTH if either tropies is won). Or a decision has to made where the priority is.

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 12 March 2008

Admittedly, most other Liverpool managers over the last twenty years haven’t got very much closer. I understand the frustration of Liverpool’s fans at not winning the league in that time when they saw it as almost their divine right to win it most years before that.

However, I just seem to be hearing the “Benitez is a crap manager because if you discount his performance in the Champions League, Liverpool have done hardly anything” line a lot lately. This almost strikes me as like saying that Carl Lewis was a disappointing athlete if you don’t count the nine Olympic gold medals. Liverpool fans have been to the Champions Leage final twice in three years (including winning the trophy once) and there could well be more such glory coming. Liverpool will win the league again some time. Chelsea’s glory will probably not outlast the Russian money. Manchester United may well get caught in the collapse of the credit bubble. Arsenal deserve huge respect for the way in which they run their house, but they don’t have quite the fanbase of Man U or Liverpool.

However, such a streak in Europe may never come again, and you should enjoy it while it lasts.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 12 March 2008

The problem with the “enjoy Europe don’t worry about the Premier League” approach can be summed up in two words.

Leeds United.

This was a club that operated on the financial assumption of playing Champions’ League football every season. In 2000, that assumption looked good. In 2002 it no longer looked as good. Recently, the club has been on the brink of bankrupcy several times and is about 40 places off qualifying for the Champions League. If Liverpool goes out in the quarter final then the Prem League position will be vital.

The failure to win the Premier League for Liverpool is down to two factors: not good enough performances against Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United in the past 20 years, and the inability to string together a streak of say 30 undefeated matches with only about three draws. Losing to Reading last year with a bizarre formation and even more bizarre team tactics was the sort of lapse Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho and Alex Ferguson do not appear to make as often.

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 13 March 2008
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