Ireland have chosen Ronan O’Gara, England have kept faith with Jonny Wilkinson even though he couldn’t launch his back line all autumn, and Scotland have gone back to Chris Patterson.
What does this tell us about the 6 Nations Championship which kicks off tomorrow at Croke Park and then at Twickenham?
It’s in danger of turning into one huge penalty kicking-fest. Why?
The word has got out that referees have been told to launch a crackdown in the two most decisive phases of the modern game: the breakdown and the scrum. Expect more penalties to be handed out and the early matches of the 2010 tournament to be settled by penalty kicks. All the coaches want their top-line goal kickers around; it’s not rocket science that they will be the key men.
An edict from on high has warned referees that the laws are not being policed with sufficient vigour, especially at the breakdown. Players like New Zealand captain Richie McCaw have perfected the art of making a tackle, swinging around, getting to their feet whilst STILL holding onto the ball carrier. Trouble is, the law says this is illegal.
A tackled player must be released so as to give him an opportunity, in turn, to release the ball.
Too few referees have been willing to officiate this crucial part of the game. As one top international referee told me this week: “It is true, that is the law at the moment. The question is whether it is being adhered to.”
Plainly not, is the answer. And the failure to enforce it has led to stagnation in the game because top quality, rapidly secured second phase possession, the type that can really stretch and expose a defence, has not been available. Thus, the breakdown has become the log jam of the game.
The IRB, perfectly aware of the situation, have acknowledged the answer lies in their own hands, or rather in the hands of their referees. If they penalise this illegal but now too often widely accepted practice, they can bring much greater flow back to the game. Keep ignoring it and the game will continue to atrophy.
“It’s obvious we have to get these tacklers away from the breakdown,” said my source. “The law says the tackler can compete for the ball but it doesn’t say he can hold onto the tackled player and seal it off from his opponents by not releasing the guy he has put down.”
There is no smoke without fire here. The English Premiership has been dogged with this problem all season and everyone has seen the result.
Stricter policing of this misinterpreted law will inevitably create a stream of penalties, to begin with anyway. Hence the national coaches rushing to select their best goal kickers for the opening weekend. They’re not fools, they know what is coming.
The same could be true of the scrummage. Referees have been told to be much stricter on the series of collapses that seem to litter every game. Far less tolerance may be shown by match officials, although there might be more use of the free kick from this phase than a full penalty.
But although match officials have been told to tighten up on this phase, too, that may be easier said than done. If props want to carry on their own individual contest to the detriment of the game and oblivious to everyone else around them, it can be desperately difficult singling out one particular culprit.
These instructions may or may not prove enforceable. But one thing is clear — if the whistle is blown more as a consequence, don’t just do the dumb thing and blame the bloke in the middle with the whistle.
Better to look at the actions of the players who are trying to gain illegal advantage than the guy given the job of enforcing the laws. It won’t be his fault if the games become penalty kicking contests.