Writing on Friday morning, all I can say about the Glasgow-Scarlets semi-final is that I hope it turned out to be a more entertaining match than last week’s dismal Champions Cup final between Leinster and Racing 92. If that game held one’s attention it was only because there was never more than one score between the teams. Otherwise the pitiful lack of imagination and ambition made it a poor advertisement for European rugby.
Leinster were more to blame, principally because they had the greater share of possession. All that they did with this was to play the one-pass, take the tackle, recycle, one pass etc rugby, or to have Luke McGrath at scrum-half box-kick. The Racing 9, Teddy Imbaren, was equally keen on box-kicking. There must have been 50 or 60 box-kicks in the 80 minutes.
There is a glittering array of talent in the Leinster back-division, but you wouldn’t have thought so. Johnny Sexton has a variety of skills: the loop or wrap-around on his first pass, the diagonal kick to the wing, the grubber, the dinky little chip and the steepling Garryowen under the posts. They weren’t in evidence. Instead Leinster stuck grimly to their battering-ram approach. It was all the more infuriating – and boring – because one knows how brilliantly they can play when it suits them. Racing fly-half Pat Lambie showed more ambition in his two minutes on the pitch than Sexton did in 80.
So it was a poor show. Thinking about it reminded me that some years ago Ken Scotland gave me an off-print of an article entitled “The Evolution of Rugby Football” he had written for the University of Edinburgh Journal in 1965. It’s a short article, well worth seeking out, for much of what he writes is still relevant today, or relevant once again. It was written at a time of major changes in the Laws of the game, changes which were intended to restore fluidity and (I think) favour the attack.
Writing about the influence of specialisation on the way rugby was played, he said that its “practical expression has been to limit severely the element of doubt as to which side will gain possession of the ball from the set pieces. This has led the side not expecting to obtain the ball to adopt an uncompromisingly defensive set-up”.
Limiting the element of doubt as to which side will obtain possession – the words have a familiar ring. We expect sides to win their own set scrum and their own line-out, though possession from the line-out is a little less certain. But in the last 20 years – that’s to say, in the professional era – there has been another turn of the screw. The law at the tackle point, at least as generally interpreted by referees, removes, or limits, doubt as to which side will win possession. Consequently we have the war of attrition as practised so efficiently by teams like Leinster, with the result that most of the opposition players stand in a defensive line, and the trench warfare continues and continues till either an opportunity presents itself to the team in possession or the ball is spilled or the ball-carrier penalised for holding on.
So we have reached a critical point in the evolution of the game. The side in possession can, if sufficiently skilled, retain the ball through many phases even without gaining territory in the hope that eventually there will be a chink in their opponents’ defence, while conversely the other side can hope that if they continue to make their first-time tackles, their opponents will at last spill the ball or concede a penalty.
This makes for sterile rugby as we saw in the Champions Cup final, and it is scarcely relieved by the excessive use of the box-kick, though this at least opens the possibility of transferring possession to the other side if the kick has been too long or the chase too slow.
Now it would be foolish to deny that we see many adventurous and exhilarating matches – and I hope Glasgow and the Scarlets provided such a game; foolish also not to recognise that every sport has the possibility to be dull and lacking in ambition, in thrall to the doctrine of “safety first”. In this respect Rugby Union doesn’t differ from Rugby League or football, cricket or tennis. In any sport the patience to wait for your opponent to make a mistake while attempting very little yourself is often rewarded.
Leinster got that reward last Saturday when a Racing back strayed offside in front of his own posts and Isa Nacewa coolly and gratefully took the points to win the Cup. “It wasn’t,” Leinster’s coach Leo Cullen admitted, “the prettiest of games”. Too right it wasn’t, but the truth is that Leinster can play this Western Front style of rugby as well as anyone and the law relating to the tackle point encourages it. By eliminating or reducing the element of doubt, the law has the other side stand off at the tackle and concentrate on defence.