Last weekend’s Heineken match between Munster and Racing 92 at Thomond Park was sheer delight, up there with the Japan-Scotland game. It was so good that neutrals at least may judge that a draw was the right result, as indeed might have been the case if Scotland had scored that try near the end in Tokyo.
Munster fans were no doubt disappointed that J J Hanrahan’s 79th minute attempt to kick a Ronan O’Gara-style match-winning drop goal slipped past the post, but given that the Racing scrum-half had not long before shaved the wrong side of the post with a penalty, they might conclude that the result was fair and indeed just.
The other day, the Guardian’s chief rugby writer Robert Kitson wrote: “As the great Jonathan Davies observed on Twitter, Finn Russell’s twinkle-toed skills for Racing stood out from the modern herd because of their relative rarity. ‘Not many steppers in the game now,’ Davies wrote. ‘Need them to break up the boredom of repetitive slow phase play’”. Absolutely. Finn ignited the match with a brilliant individual try and helped create Racing’s other tries scored by Teddy Thomas and Juan Imhoff by his awareness and vision. No wonder that the word “finntastic” is now, as they say, trending.
This Jonathan Davies is, of course, the Welsh stand-off of the 80s and early 90s, himself twinkle-toed, not today’s Foxy Davies, though he too is capable of very nifty footwork.
Munster’s first try, scored by Keith Earls, was also a delight. He had very little space, but then he doesn’t need much. Give him the glimpse of a gap no wider than the eye of a knitting-needle, and he’s through it and heading for the try-line. You would be hard put to convince me that there’s a better wing in the Six Nations than Earls.
Rugby needs, of course, more than one sort of game, and what is often called Barbarians-style rugby, in which tries are both plentiful and too easily conceded, can be as unsatisfactory and boring as 80 minutes of “repetitive slow phase play” and box-kick after box-kick. Brooding on this, Kitson again raised the question of reducing the number of permitted replacements. The idea is probably popular, though not, I suppose, with coaches for whom the timing of sending on replacements represents their best chance of influencing a match once it is in progress.
The argument in favour of restricting the number of replacements is simple and apparently persuasive. If more forwards were required to play the full 80 minutes of a match, some would become tired, gaps would appear in defences and the game would open up.
There is, however, a flaw in the argument. The players most likely to be replaced quite early in the second half are the front-row forwards. Regulations, however, require that you have three of them on the bench and it is now generally recognised that each has a specialised role. Few props are now deemed competent to play on either side of the scrum. Long, long ago the great Hawick prop Hugh McLeod could not only do this but on the 1959 Lions tour of New Zealand also played as hooker in three provincial matches when the two hookers in the touring party, Ireland’s Ronnie Dawson and the great Welshman Bryn Meredith, were injured.
So, though you may reduce the number of permitted replacements, safety considerations now seem to require that you will still have three specialist front-row men on the bench (or be faced with the prospect of uncontested scrums, which no one likes). Accordingly, then as now, three hefty gentlemen with, as someone recently remarked, “necks as big as thighs”, will trot on to the field around the 50 minute mark, ready to play their part in repetitive slow phase rugby.
Likewise, if you are tired of matches in which the scrum-halves hoist box-kick after box-kick, be careful what you wish for. A suggestion, for instance, that a return to the old law which permitted a player to make a mark anywhere on the field, and not just in his own 22, might indeed see scrum-halves box-kick less often. But what would they do instead?
Alas, the probable answer is pop up a pass to a powerful forward who would take the tackle, allowing a ruck to be formed which would deliver the ball to the scrum-half who would pop up a pass to a powerful forward who would… You get the message. It wouldn’t be long before you were sighing for a box-kick to offer a little variety.
When the law-makers settle down to consider changes, the law that should be uppermost in their minds is an unwritten one: the Law of Unforeseen Consequences. It scunners up the best-intentioned changes. Happily, however, there are matches which suggest that no great revision of the Laws is necessary; what is required is the right mental approach. The Munster-Racing game was such a game; lovely stuff.