Thursday, 27 March 2008

Putting Forwards Back Into the Rugby League Front Row

It became evident after the week's on and off-field action that there is an overdose of aggro occurring amongst the 'front row forwards' of Rugby League. The Rugby League judiciary was the place to be for any Rugby League 'forward' seeking a reputation as the game's new designated hard man. The judiciary doled out suspensions quicker than Centrelink hands out dole cheques to former Reserve graders.

For those not familiar with the history of the Rugby codes and scrums in particular this is approximately how it happened; William Webb Ellis picked up a soccer ball and ran into a bunch of his mates who started to hit him and so Rugby Union was born. Rugby League split from Rugby Union over a dispute about effort - League forwards wanted to get paid to do it, Union forwards did it for fun. By the 1980s, Rugby League began to generate into glorified touch football, the shoulder charge became the preferred method of turning over ball, and scrums degenerated into a love fest where the forwards would rest against each other for a breather while the halfback fed the ball to himself. Meanwhile, Rugby Union scrums became more technical and more symbolically intrinsic to everything that is aesthetically pleasing about the game, to the extent today that it is necessary for each scrum to be reset five times as players touch themselves, pause to consider life and what's it all about, before engaging in a fierce manly battle to the death or even worse, losing.

Rugby League's non contested scrums deny their 'front row forwards' the opportunity to compete in these battles of strength. . Rugby Union, however, under guidelines that have developed over well over a century for the express purpose of allowing opposing players to compare themselves, has this in abundance.

The Rugby Union scrum does not just challenge the endurance, strength, cunning and guile of slow fat men with no necks, it also ensures that by the time the opposing players meet each other in open play they are too buggered to clobber each other.

So if Rugby League wants to stamp out foul play, it needs to reinstate the scrum to all its intended and contested glory.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Home-Ground Disadvantage

The rule in all tipping competitions is if in doubt tip the home team. This is especially true of the Super 14 and all its predecessors, where the tyrannies of distance, jet lag, altitude (to some extent), rock throwing trumpet blowing spectators, insulting ground announcers and foreign cultures made playing away always a difficult proposition. At least it was true.

In 2008, to date, more matches have been won in the Super 14 away from home than at home. Even South African teams are winning in Australia and New Zealand, an unforeseen event that could ruin the founding intention of Super Rugby which was to ensure the inherent sovereignty of Australian and New Zealand Rugby (2007 notwithstanding which resulted from a miscalculation by Graham Henry).

Tipping competitions have been spiralling into chaos as previously naturally hopeless tippers with no idea such as foreigners (especially Queenslanders), women and Rugby League fans have surged to the top of the tipping tables.

So whatever happened to the home town advantage? The Rolling Maul blames it on modern stadium design and technology.

Ever since every new stadium started to look like an airport terminal on the outside, grassed hills were removed, full-strength beer was banned, and you couldn't run on the field at full time, atmosphere reverted to the air you breathe, not the life force that inspires victory in the face of adversity.

When football grounds are known by their corporate naming rights sponsor and not their suburb or their purpose for being then Rugby may as well be played on the roofs of city office blocks at lunch time in front of 20 blokes in suits who aren't even paying attention.

In addition, modern Rugby balls are made of all weather hi-tech sticky rubber with hi-grip nodules instead of the laces and water absorbent leather that takes on the handling conditions of soap and the weight of a brick when it rains. Today, every ground has perfect drainage and grass cover unlike the not too recent past when you couldn't tell the difference between the teams because of the mud when it rained or the blood when it didn't. As a result, the natural wet weather skills (primarily one-out running and an infinite loop of rucks and mauls) of hulking New Zealand behemoths (forwards and backs) are lost. Also, the natural running game of the great Australian teams, finessed and perfected in an effort not to be ground into the rock-hard dusty drought riven playing surfaces of Australia, have been forgotten.

It's Rugby, but not as we know it. As such, the recipe to Waratahs success is simple. Reinstating the original name of the Sydney Football Stadium was a commendable step but it doesn't go nearly far enough. The NSWRU need to stop watering the ground, remove the seats at each end and replace them with grassed hills, and bring back full strength beer. And if that doesn't work, score more tries.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Rugby - The Game They Play in Kazhakstan

John O'Neill was proud as punch, and more than a little relieved, when he announced to the World that the Wallabies were to play the All Blacks in a full Bledisloe Cup international in Hong Kong in November. "The future of Rugby is in Asia" he proclaimed (or words to that effect). More to the point, the future of the ARUs bottom line had been secured, at least in the short term.

Meanwhile, South Africa announced plans to play Ireland in Dubai as part of their European Tour later this year. "The future of Rugby is in the Middle East" (or words to that effect)proclaimed SARFU.

They're both right. But not only that. The future of Rugby is in Scandinavia and Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa and Central America. Indeed anywhere that has access to a satellite dish, a wonky old soccer ball that doesn't bounce right and slow fat guys that can't kick, Rugby will find an appreciative viewing audience and a ready supply of players.

So look forward to the Six Nations being played in Tunisia, Freetown, Istanbul and Jerusalem. Expect Tri-Nations matches in Cairo, Islamabad, Tashkent and Phnom Penh. Tune in to watch the blockbuster finals of the African Seven Nations and the Asian Five Nations between Kazhakstan and the Arabian Gulf (actually that one's real).

Ultimately the increased dominance of Rugby, or 'the World Game' as it will come to be known, will ensure a Rugby World Cup Final featuring 42 nations of the 194 countries on the planet (or 195 if you include Taiwan or 197 if you count England, Wales and Scotland as separate entities deserving of country status) that contested Rugby World Cup qualifying.

Or maybe there'll just be one-off cash cows played in Hong Kong, Dubai and Tokyo.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Rugby's Culture Wars

One Round of Rugby can reveal a lot about the cultures of a country...

Ewen Mckenzie is on the record saying it's not good enough to win ugly. But win ugly is exactly what the Waratahs are doing when they're not losing ugly. Meanwhile, a rag tag bunch of kids and rejects in Canberra is playing exciting open Rugby much like their predecessors did even before the laws were changed to encourage just that sort of game.

Why is it that the Waratahs, the most talented players in Australia on a whole and certainly by reputation, play safe Rugby when they should be expansive, kick away good ball, or push passes under pressure when they should be playing tight and safe? Waratahs matches have a tendency to feature desperate defence and scrambled tries.

And it's not just this season it's every season. Waratahs supporters have grown accustomed to the early season promise, the scrapped win, the flash of brilliance and hope only to see it dashed late in the season when the New Zealand big guns arrive or conversely when the Waratahs set foot in New Zealand. If coach after coach, star league recruit after star league recruit, and brilliantly talented youngster after brilliantly talented youngster can't make a difference then the problem lies deeper.

The Brumbies on the other hand have proven to be Australia's most successful provincial Rugby team (sorry, franchise) since their inception, winning a number of Super Rugby titles with rejected players from the traditional Rugby heartlands of New South Wales and Queensland. Not only are the Brumbies successful but they have won with style, flair and, most importantly, innovation. Rod MacQueen, the first Brumbies coach and later Wallaby Coach, and his Brumbies Wallaby core of Gregan, Larkham and others even won a World Cup.

This season, after a slow start, the Brumbies hit their straps in traditional style against the Queensland Reds. With an injured list that would make an impressive first XV and Julian Huxley, one of their few remaining experienced players knocked out of the match after two minutes, the Brumbies turned to what they knew best, throwing the ball wide and probing for gaps. It worked spectacularly.

Of course any team can throw the ball around. But when the Brumbies do it the ball sticks and the movement flows. The Waratahs do occasionally, but not until a match is wrapped up or they're desperate and when it happens it all tends to break down through fumbled passes and a lack of intuition.

The Waratahs malaise is not about player or coaching talent, facilities, support or the media. It's inherent. It's the Sydney zeitgeist, that intangible Sydney characteristic that spends too much time sitting in traffic worrying about real estate prices and child care. That has the best harbour in the World and isn't afraid to admit it. That has great beach weather and great beaches that the vast majority of its population is too busy to ever go to.

Rugby should be either a passionate priority (as it is in new Zealand) or a passionate escape (as it is in South Africa). But in Sydney, Rugby is just another competing distraction. An enjoyable one when it goes right, but not an important one. Sydney spectators, irrespective of the sport, are notoriously fickle, and will support any winning team. But at the end of the day, most Sydney-siders would like the Waratahs to win but don't really care, and it's an attitude which infuses the Waratahs playing style and passion or lack thereof. When you have everything in your own backyard why be adventurous?

And Canberra? How does a dull notoriety of public servants and roundabouts translate to the adventurous Brumbies playing style? It's all about balance. Grey at work and at home, Canberrans express themselves when they're out as there is nowhere else to do it - no beaches, no mardi gras, and few restaurants, cafes, arthouse cinemas or tourist attractions that don't feature politics, war or art. If a football team wants to get the attention of its potential supporter base it has to provide something different. And it helps if you win.