The British don’t understand rugby, and don’t understand the ELVs

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    England\'s Paul Sackey, left, hits the ground after making a catch under pressure from unidentified New Zealand players during their rugby union international match at Twickenham stadium in west London, Sunday Nov. 5, 2006. AP Photo/Matt Dunham

    Making the occasional mistake of fact is acceptable (I’ve made some beauties), as long as the mistake is acknowledged and strong opinions are not based on the mistake.

    My argument against the British rugby establishment (with occasional exceptions), both officials and the unfortunately influential media who should know better, is that it has made mistakes of fact for over 100 years.

    The mistakes have not been acknowledged or corrected and, even worse, a restrictive and incorrect view of how the rugby game should be played has been touted aggressively from these mistakes.

    In other words, the British rugby establishment does not understand rugby.

    It has opposed every initiative to make rugby a more skillful, athletic and enjoyable game to play and watch for over 120 years.

    A few examples from history.

    British intransigence by ‘the old farts’ to providing some financial help to injured players led to the creation of rugby league. Rugby lost its chances of being the premier world football game because of this stupidity.

    A president of the RFU opposed allowing points for a try on the grounds that teams should not be rewarded for having fast wingers.

    The New Zealand diamond scrum, a two-three-two formation and the best scrum ever devised, was deemed to be ‘cheating’ by the British and banned in favour of the 8-man scrum.

    The frequent request by New Zealand officials for a 14-man game, seven forwards and seven backs, was repeatedly rejected.

    The so-called Home Unions (aside from a couple of delegates) voted against a Rugby World Cup in the IRB in 1985, a decision that was thankfully voted in with the support of the Southern Hemisphere unions and France.

    The argument against the Rugby World Cup was that Europe had its Five Nations tournament, that this was going splendidly, and that the Southern Hemisphere was pushing for a World Cup only because of the threat of rugby league.

    Stephen Jones, the leader of the British journalistic pack, stated that there would never be another line-out steal after lifting was brought in (note, on the weekend, the All Blacks lost six of their lineouts, and the Springboks lost one). I have never read him recant on this obvious mistake.

    There will be readers of The Roar who find my apparent obsession with Stephen Jones and the obdurate and forever-wrong British rugby establishment somewhat over-wrought.

    This may be so.

    But in mitigation I would argue that the damage done to rugby as an enjoyable game to be played and watched around the world, facilitated by the British rugby establishment (again, I acknowledge that there have been exceptions to this general criticism), has been increasing, and it ought to be stopped.

    It can only be stopped, in my view, by constantly confronting the British rugby establishment with the gross and manifest errors of fact and opinion – throughout history and currently – of its ways.

    The current battle ground where the British rugby establishment has set its face obdurately and mistakenly against all the facts and the history of rugby is the controversy over the IRB’s experimental law variations.

    The RFU (England’s rugby union) has stated its total objection to the ELVs. To man and woman, the British rugby media – print and television – have waged a bitter and factually incorrect campaign against the ELVs.

    This is in the disgraceful tradition of opposition to every improvement suggested, invariably from Southern Hemisphere nations, to make rugby a better game to play and watch.

    These are tough criticisms, and I’d like to back them by deconstructing (briefly) three recent articles in the British media which demonstrate the degree of misinformation peddled in the press and the lack of understanding by the writers of what the rugby game is all about, and what it should be.

    In the Irish Independent, George Hook, attacked the ELVs in an article titled: ‘Rule changes give birth to a monster: Experimental laws are stripping rugby of its soul and its safety.’

    The title gives a clue to the line of argument in the article.

    QUOTE: “The rolling maul is not a spectacle so it had to be stopped. The international board cravenly concurred and legalised the inherently dangerous collapsing of the maul.”

    FACT: There has been one broken neck in 1000 hours of games played with mauls being pulled down. Of course, this accident is unfortunate. But the statistics gathered by the IRB show that that there have been fewer injuries from rolling mauls when they can be collapsed legally than when collapsing is illegal.

    QUOTE: Hook also asserts that the “mad-cap runaround’ rugby that ELVs create won’t be able to be played by “Saturday afternoon sportsmen.”

    FACT: The ELVs were developed at Stellenbosch University, with students who were Saturday afternoon rugby players.

    QUOTE: The ELVs “deliver a game that has no resemblance to that played for almost a century and a half.”

    FACT: The ELVs restriction on kicking out go back to the 1920s when the same rule was allowed in Australia and Auckland (New Zealand) under the title of the ‘Australian Dispensation.’ The maul was introduced into rugby by the French in the 1960s, and was not part of the rugby game for its first 90 years.

    Then we had Nick Cain in the UK Sunday Times, in his match report of the first Tri-Nations Test between New Zealand and South Africa, complaining how under the ELVs, rugby union had become like rugby league, especially with the absence of rolling mauls in the match.

    FACT: There were rolling mauls from the All Blacks. If Cain had paid attention to the television commentary, he would have heard the call “sack it, sack it” as the All Blacks rumbled forward. The Springboks did not use the maul because they had their first lineout throw 32 minutes into the Test.

    As for the accusation that rugby union is morphing into rugby league, Cain should read the IRB Charter of the Game where the first paragraph proclaims that rugby should be a game for all body shapes and that the basic principle of the game is that there should be a continual contest for possession (something that has been legislated out of the rugby league game).

    Further, there were 58 turnovers in the Test, 29 each by the All Blacks and Springboks.

    The ELVs, in other words, are entrenching the basic principle of the rugby game.

    Brian Moore, a former feisty England hooker, a lawyer by profession, and a rugby pundit on television and print, wrote in his Telegraph (UK) rugby column that the All Blacks-Springboks Tri-Nations Test was a “titanic” struggle with a first half that “largely resembled a 40-minute dodgem car ride.”

    It was “hugely athletic, but with little guile.”

    Moore goes on to point out that the All Blacks used the no-marking lineout requirement to put more forwards into the lineout when the Springboks had a short lineout, and that these forwards being closer to the five-eights then put tremendous pressure on Butch James.

    Is this not guile?

    Like Nick Cain, he did not see any mauls. What game was he watching?

    Moore also made the curious argument against the ELVs that instead of tapping the ball “willy-nilly,” the All Blacks opted for scrums in the second half. This was something that “proponents of the ELVs had not mentioned.”

    FACT: John O’Neill, (modestly) myself and many others have pointed out that the ELVs provide teams with strong scrums with more not fewer opportunities for scrumming than under the old laws.

    Finally, Moore pointed out that the All Blacks-Springboks Test provided fewer tries than the Australia-France Test which was played under the old laws, so “people should stop trying to justify the ELVs by saying more tries are scored thereunder.”

    FACT: The main justification for the ELVs is to take as much subjectivity on the part of the referee out of the game, so that the players decide the outcome of a game and not the officials.

    Brian Moore then goes into a remarkable confession about the inadequacies of the British game.

    There is, he insists, “a class gap”, except for Wales, between Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere teams: “This has developed since 2003 and threatens to widen.”

    “The fact is,” he says, “that the coaching systems in the Southern Hemisphere countries are better than in Europe.”

    The failed recent tours of the Northern Hemisphere teams to the Southern Hemisphere “showed that, at the moment, the Southern Hemisphere HAVE A BETTER GRASP OF THE GAME [my capitals] and their basic skills are superior.”

    His conclusion is interesting: ‘Writers are fond of calling for cavalier flights of fancy from English players. They will never get them if players cannot do the simple things properly.”

    I would agree with all of this. But I would go much further.

    British players do not have a good grasp of the game because – and this is the fundamental reason, in my opinion – the British rugby establishment does not have an accurate and well-informed grasp of the game.

    They do understand the history of the game. They do not understand the evolution of the laws. They do not understand how the game should be played.

    The British rugby establishment does not understand rugby.

    Results for over 100 years suggest that Southern Hemisphere nations do understand rugby.

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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    The Crowd Says (110)

    • July 9th 2008 @ 3:22am
      Benjamins Saunders said | July 9th 2008 @ 3:22am | ! Report

      Southern Hemisphere rugby clearly acclimatised more quickly to professionalism than Northern Hemisphere rugby. However I think to say that British players do not have a good grasp of the game is unnecessary and actually is very much a Stephen Jones-esqe comment. Perhaps if you two want to have a duel to see who is more bitter you should have a public debate, because articles like the above perpetuate stereotypes.

      John Smit has questioned the value of the ELVs. Warren Gatland is also anti -ELV man, which would seem unusual given that Wales have a comparatively lightweight pack, and an inventive back-division. Gatland sees the ELVs as a substitute for adequate refereeing and poor coaching. Graham Henry has questioned the new lineout and ruck rules. Do you know more than these people?

      Spiro, for your information the majority of European fans welcome a selection of the ELVs, the 22 metre rule, the touch flag rule, but why inflict them on upon a very successful business structure, ie. European rugby? 23 ELVs is excessive. Ultimately it is Sanzar that has issues with their domestic audiences.

    • July 9th 2008 @ 8:25am
      Justin said | July 9th 2008 @ 8:25am | ! Report

      Lets remember these ELVs are trial laws for the next year. The main concern I have is which if any the IRB decide to use on a permanent basis. I liked the S14 this year but will give the current ones time to play out and see where they take the game.

      Also I tried to post on a number of Brian Moore’s hysterical articles and guess what? I never got put on the site! They are very very afraid in the NH, there is no doubt.

    • Columnist

      July 9th 2008 @ 8:37am
      Spiro Zavos said | July 9th 2008 @ 8:37am | ! Report

      The comment that British players do not have a good grasp of the game was a quote from the former England hooker and now media commentator Brian Moore.

    • July 9th 2008 @ 8:53am
      Benjamin said | July 9th 2008 @ 8:53am | ! Report

      Spiro, I understand that having read the article, but your conclusion is exactly the same, unless I am mistaken?

      Justin, realistically I don’t think people in the NH are afraid of the ELVs but have various reservations. There are 23 don’t forget, and it would have made sense to stagger them over a 2 year period. Realistically, the World Cup aside Ireland, Wales, Australia, South Africa, and results pending England, are not that far apart skills wise. The only team to worry the NH is New Zealand who clearly are, and have been for the past 5 years, light years ahead of their competitors.

      I think Brian Moore is actually quite a good commentator, he calls a spade a spade, and is never short of brutally criticising his home nation.

    • July 9th 2008 @ 9:18am
      Bill said | July 9th 2008 @ 9:18am | ! Report

      The Australian and New Zealand approach to Rugby is and always has been vastly different to NH teams. This North v South argument is never ending and a wasete of time. We’re not going to change their opinions on how rugby should be played and they won’t change ours. Lets just enjoy the diversity and be comforatable in the knowledge that SH teams have won 83.33% of world cups.

    • July 9th 2008 @ 9:22am
      Andrew Marks said | July 9th 2008 @ 9:22am | ! Report

      Spiro, I agree with what you have written. Reality is that the NH only know one way to play Rugby (witness England in the last WC) and fear any change that might expose their lack of athleticism, quality coaching, basic skills, verve, flare, etc. etc all the skills that S14 (“basketball Rugby”) engender.

      The facts are that the SH is driven by market forces whereas the NH, given their demograhic, are not. So there is always going to be a disconnect on this level and deep suspicion from the NH about SH motives for change.

      The SH has won 5 out of the last 6 World Cups, the NH proably view the ELV’s as putting a NH WC win even further from their reach.

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