There are some things one is never likely to see on the rugby field again, the old foot-rush for instance, with three or four forwards keeping the ball under close control and even passing it to each other. Players would spend hours practising the dribble, but nobody, I would guess, is likely to do that again. Just occasionally, however, something that used to be common is surprisingly sprung on us.
Last week Cardiff had a scrum about ten metres outside the Edinburgh 22. There was a quick clean heel, and scrum-half Tom Williams was scampering away on a break like Gareth Edwards of Wales’s glory years. He was across the gain-line before Edinburgh realised what was happening. We are so used now to seeing the ball held in a slowly advancing or even static scrum that the sight of the No 9 breaking fast and dangerously seems remarkable. But why doesn’t it happen more often? The offside law favours it but the opportunity is seldom taken.
Edinburgh’s growing self-confidence took a bit of a dunt in that match, but it should be said that Cardiff were very good: quick, intelligent and usually accurate. They varied their game very nicely, and Edinburgh’s response to the unexpected was slow and uncertain. Still, this setback doesn’t cancel out all the progress that has been made, and the good work that has been done.
Last weekend, however, belonged to Ireland as indeed the last two months have. Munster once again snatched victory from defeat in the dying minutes, something they must have done more often than any other club in the history of European Cups, while Leinster were simply magnificent against a Saracens team that huffed and puffed to no avail despite being given a free three points when Johnny Sexton was penalised for kicking the ball away to prevent Saracens from taking a quick restart; it was as silly as anything I have seen from a top player in years. He may be Dublin’s darling, but if Saracens had won by a single point or two points… it doesn’t bear thinking about.
Scottish rugby is improving, there’s no doubt about that. Nevertheless, we all have to look admiringly, and perhaps enviously, across the Irish Sea. The truth is that Ireland has adapted better to professionalism than any other country except New Zealand, and they have done so without the enormous advantages in terms of player numbers enjoyed by England, France and South Africa. They are now ranked only behind New Zealand, and what they have in common is a structure that is geared to national success, a structure in which the game is controlled and managed by the Union.
We have that too, which is why we are improving, but we don’t have the player numbers, and the two professional clubs, for all that they have achieved, don’t have the same depth and commitment of popular support as the Irish provinces, especially Leinster and Munster.
One measure of the strength of the Irish game is that the Union and the national team coach Joe Schmidt are strong enough to tell players who take the bait of high salaries from English or French clubs that they are jeopardising their international future. We can’t afford to do this. So we have to accept freedom of movement.
It’s not all bad. Some players do improve after moving to England or France, while their departure offers opportunities for others. Fair enough, though such opportunities may be inherited here, while comparable ones have to be earned in Ireland at the expense, ultimately, of the incumbent. More-over, during the Six Nations, French and English clubs are entitled to call players back from the Scotland squad on the two fallow weekends – though they can’t summon them back from the England squad.
Well, we have to live with this because, with things as they are, refusing to pick players from English or French clubs would be foolish. South Africa, historically one of the two or three strongest rugby-playing countries, is, I think, coming to the same conclusion. Partly because of the understandable race-quota system, partly because of the weakness of the Rand, there has been a huge exodus of South African players to Europe. Consequently, by restricting selection to home-based players, South Africa’s recent international record has been unprecedentedly poor. There are signs of a change of policy with an eye to next year’s World Cup. If there isn’t – if, that’s to say, South Africa doesn’t act like Scotland and look reality in the eye – there would be a fair chance of South Africa failing to qualify for the quarter-finals for the first time ever. That would certainly be something one never expected to see.