Spectator sport

Rugby must try harder

5 December 2020

9:00 AM

5 December 2020

9:00 AM

Remember those lazy, hazy, crazy days of last year’s rugby World Cup, when as perfect a performance by England as we are ever likely to see dethroned the All Blacks? England went through to the final 19-7 with a brilliant, nimble, free-running performance, backs and forwards in perfect harmony, and a dazzling display of skilful tactical kicking. Seems a long time ago, doesn’t it?

Friends told me after the final, where England were made to look very ordinary, that the style of South Africa’s victory (despite Cheslin Kolbe’s exquisite winning try) could be the death of rugby: attritional forward play and relentless box kicking, gaining ground and forcing penalties. All backed up by an impregnable defence — and, above all, muscle.

Well, maybe those friends were right, because the autumn series has been grim fare. It’s obvious what’s wrong: time-hungry scrum resets, caterpillar rucks, too many defenders spread across the park, and of course endless kicking. It’s like the old joke about Rob Andrew: ‘Pass the salt, Rob,’ says his neighbour at a dinner, and Andrew promptly kicks it to the far corner of the room.

And these rather meaningless autumn games could have been the perfect opportunity to experiment. Rugby needs to broaden its support, not limit it. Here are some rules we could fiddle with. Only five replacements, three of whom must be front-row specialists. If you kick the ball out, the other team throws in, even from a penalty. In a maul the side with the ball gets the put-in at the scrum. We could also experiment with the 22-metre drop-out.

England have some phenomenal players, with a back row of Sam Underhill, Tom Curry and Billy Vunipola as good as, if not better than, the world-beating Back, Dallaglio and Hill. But spectacular it hasn’t been. Will you be rushing to Amazon Prime for Saturday’s final against what’s essentially a France Extra B XV? I wouldn’t guarantee it for myself.

In the heat of Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix it was good to be reminded of the 97-year-old legend Murray Walker. At the 1996 Argentine GP, in an accident not dissimilar to the fireball in Bahrain, flames engulfed Pedro Diniz’s car. Walker, a fine example of why screaming and shouting aren’t necessarily bad for your health, gave the Sun its headline when he exclaimed: ‘Fire! Fire! Diniz in the oven.’ Luckily Diniz survived — as did Romain Grosjean on Sunday, thanks to the incredible protection the modern F1 car provides. Without it, he would have died.

The incident was a reminder of how sport might be beautiful and thrilling but can also be staggeringly dangerous. The brutal clash of heads between Arsenal’s David Luiz and Wolves’ Raul Jimenez was equally horrific. That Luiz was allowed to play on exposes yet again the paucity of football’s concussion procedures.

Unlike more or less everybody else on the planet, I don’t have a story about nearly meeting Diego Maradona. A friend of mine, how-ever, was once prevented from entering the Oxford Union gents’ loos, by the diminutive genius’s burly bodyguard, who explained that Maradona was within and not to be disturbed.

Finally, get your handbags out for Steve Thompson, a former Lincoln City player doing a spot of commentating for the BBC on Lincoln’s match against Accrington Stanley. He has now been suspended by the BBC for using the word ‘handbags’ to describe players’ histrionics. Gosh, how one despairs of the Beeb. What next? Will ‘parking the bus’ be banned for its offensive reference to poorly-paid transport workers?

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