Regular readers will know that it is not in our nature to be melodramatic so we’ll tread warily when saying rugby, while not quite on the precipice, is a game which has at best lost its way.
It’s a sweeping statement given the best efforts of New Zealand and latterly Japan to map a better way. The French too are hinting at habits of old while even the English Premiership finished on an optimistic high back in May. So all hope is not lost – despite the best efforts of the Lions and South Africa to massacre the sport by way of that abomination of a Test series.
It was caveman rugby, and I make no apologies for repeating that horrendous indictment again now. In partial mitigation, the Springboks are doing nothing that they haven’t done down through the decades. It is their way, their strength; literally and metaphorically. And yes of course there are many ways to win a rugby match beyond free-for-all naivete.
A single Robbie Henshaw half-break represented the extent of running ambition shown by the cream of the Four Home Unions over that three-Test bore-fest. That fact alone is testimony to where the William Webb Ellis-inspired game is now at.
And if ever there was a cry for help from within then the timing of the World 12s project is just that. Rugby League had the good sense to withdraw both wing-forwards in the search for space. That was in 1906, well over a century ago. Here now is Union attempting to go one better, or more accurately one less, in the race for on-field space and to ensure bums on seats going forward.
While much of the blame can be attached to Warren Gatland and his archaic tactics in Cape Town, the South Africans took us back to their Flintstone imagery in last week’s Championship defeat (thank God for minor miracles) to the Wallabies on the Gold Coast.
And seven days later, this time in Brisbane, Australian ambition trumped Springbok tactical tripe. In fairness, the Boks actually moved the ball early in the game beyond Handre Pollard but seldom without the comfort of a penalty advantage.
God only knows how they are attracting young boys to rugby in the Rainbow land. So our biggest wish for 2020-’21 and specifically for the newly instigated United Rugby Championship (URC), allied to the November series and Six Nations to follow, is that we witness some coaches of substance with the requisite courage to follow Rugby Aotearoa and copy the All Black way of doing things.
Take away the New Zealand strategy and Rugby Union, due to lack of appeal to the younger generation, will be moving into the realm of the Dodo.
To that end, specifically the transition from Pro14 – which as a tournament of appeal had long ago lost its way – to URC we welcome now the best of South African provincial rugby into the ‘Celtic and Italian’ fold.
Although the latter still have much to prove. With respect to Eastern Transvaal (Southern Kings) and the Orange Free State (Cheetahs) who are now removed, the Bulls (Northern Transvaal), Stormers (Western Province), Sharks (Natal) and Lions (Transvaal) represent the traditional powerhouse of Springbok rugby.
The hope is that we will see South African provinces bring their own chemistry and style to the newly instigated URC and not come on board as a carbon copy of what we are witnessing now from the Rainbow nation in the Test arena.
The structure and potential is there for an improved and more attractive professional game at a level below full international but the will must be there and that more than anything is our heartfelt wish for 2021-’22.
Beyond that, and assuming the former Super Rugby South African four give this European opportunity their all and not prioritise the Currie Cup, we hope that touch judges/assistant referees, call them what you will, engage much more meaningfully in helping the man in the middle deal with the increasing complexities of a game freewheeling towards crisis.
A simple and proper application of the offside law in broken play would do for starters. And by extension we want Television Match Officials (TMOs) to become much less intrusive. A comment which needless to say applies to referees as well.
We hope that the introduction of the 50:22 kicking rule will encourage ball handling in the wider channels. We also ask David Nucifora to continue the policy of redistributing provincial talent in this country, specifically that off the underage and academy belts in Leinster.
We will deal with individual players as the competition develops but in tandem with the nation may this be the season in which one from Joey Carbery, Harry Byrne, Jack Carty and Ross Byrne comes to the fore as the established successor to Johnny Sexton at the wheel of Good Ship Ireland. Sexton has been a great servant to the Irish cause and more than done his bit but common sense dictates that the time for meaningful change ahead of France 2023 is now and not on the 12-month run-in.
A final wish and it relates to all of the above: that Andy Farrell develops further the enterprise evident against the Japanese and US Eagles back in the summer when he gave youth its fling. Mind you, even a modicum of the same from straitjacketed Munster as currently constituted would help unleash the shackles in a positive way.
Put simply, whoever invented the poison that is the box-kick has a lot to answer for.