Allan Massie: The north-south divide

THE big three from the southern hemisphere played in London, Dublin and Edinburgh last weekend.

They all won, and the try-score reads: New Zealand/Australia/ South Africa 11, England/Ireland/Scotland 1. So, in 240 minutes of rugby the three northern hemisphere sides crossed their opponents’ line once, and that try was a scrambling affair following a five-metre scrum, and was made possible only because the great Kieran Read knocked on a loose ball, to everyone’s astonishment. All in all it was a miserable weekend for the north, and one which emphasised the superiority of the south.

It should be said that England did a lot better than either Ireland or Scotland. They were up against the best team, but their forwards were terrific and completely dominated the middle of the game – the last 20 minutes of the first half and the first 20 of the second. It is clear that Stuart Lancaster is putting a formidable pack together. On the other hand, given this forward dominance and the quality of ball they received, the English backs were pathetic, not once looking as if they might score a try.

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Ireland were as bad as one has seen an Irish side playing at home for a long time. They had a brief spell in the first half when it looked as if they might take control. Thereafter they got worse and worse; by the end of the game a comparison with headless chickens would be regarded by the chickens as insulting.

As for us. Well most that needs to be said has already been said. One might add only that I had a call the other night from a former Scotland captain of the now rather distant past – but a successful one – who couldn’t understand why in the wet conditions we tried to keep the ball in hand and didn’t kick it in the air, chase it and descend on any waiting defender like the wolf on the fold. (My simile, not his.) That, he said, was how fly-halves of his (amateur) day would have played the game, and indeed, even as he spoke I pictured the likes of Gordon Waddell, Colin Telfer, John Rutherford and Craig Chalmers controlling things with intelligent and challenging kicks. All I could suggest in reply was that coaches now lay such stress on possession and going through the phases that the cardinal sin is to lose it by kicking the ball back to the opposition.

Of course it all depends on the quality of the kick and the speed of the chase, and certainly I think we are often too reluctant to kick in attack. After all, the masters of the modern game, New Zealand, don’t disdain the kick. In fact, according to statistics, they kick more often than any other team. The other difference is of course that they usually kick rather well.

So, to Australia today. Back in the summer when they were making a pig’s ear of their Tests against the Lions and were then being taken apart by the All Blacks and the Springboks, I had this pencilled in as a match which we ought to win. Things look a bit different now, since they came close to beating England, then took 50 points from Italy and then made Ireland look third rate. On the other hand, they are not as good as South Africa, and we may hope we won’t make as many unforced errors as we did last Sunday. If history is of any consolation, you may choose to remember that when we beat South Africa at Murrayfield in 2010, that triumph followed a 49-3 defeat by New Zealand. Form in rugby can be as topsy-turvy as form in any sport. Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer were both beaten in the first week of Wimbledon this year by players they were expected to beat comfortably.

Meanwhile, rugby at the top level is being spoiled by its excessive reliance on technology, one consequence of which is that instead of an international match lasting 95 minutes (including half-time) from kick-off to the final whistle, it is now stretching out to last a full two hours on occasion. Delays caused by serious injury are unavoidable, but the time taken by the TMO to decide whether a or not a try has been scored is often ridiculous The IRB should set a time limit on it – and not a generous one. Likewise it would be good to see referees telling players to get a move on when they are kicking for goal. In the match at Lansdowne Road, both Jonny Sexton and Quade Cooper took ages to kick. I reckon that almost ten minutes of the first half were taken up with their preparations. People go on about the time lost through scrums being set up and reset, but goal kickers waste even more time.

Finally, and regrettably, the elite referees (as they are called) seem to have agreed that the IRB’s directive that the ball should be put into the scrum straight is either a load of nonsense or something that doesn’t apply to them. In the first weeks of the new season, they paid some attention to it, and awarded a few free kicks. Now it appears that they think this a sufficient gesture, and are happy to let scrum-halves put the ball in anyhow – which means of course into their own scrum. If referees don’t do as they’re told by the authorities, why should the players?