With all the talk around the experimental law variations (ELVs) being trialled in the Super 14, I sought to challenge my own strong ideas by watching some more classical rugby.My Petticoat Government had a girls’ night out on Friday, so I decided to settle in with the 1973 All Blacks vs Barbarians match played in Cardiff – a match that somewhat arrogantly calls itself (according to the BBC DVD cover) “The Greatest Rugby Match Ever Played”. Now the BBC can be forgiven for not having watched the 1986 HTS Sasolburg vs Sasolburg High School crunch match wherein the “Kapoeners” destroyed the “Spanners” in a ripsnorter of note, but a claim like that is still a hell of thing to make.
So I kissed the wife goodbye, and we settled down together, myself and Messrs Wylie, Dawes, Quinnell, Edwards, McBride, Williams, Bennett, Going, and most importantly Carlsberg. The rampant Men In Black had just recorded victories over Wales, Scotland and England, and were expected to brush their opponents aside. The teams ran out under the grey winter skies and performed their haka in an almost comical, rhythmic fashion. Certainly none of the throat-slitting marketer’s wet dream of modern times.
The first scrum was my first revelation. The packs locked horns in a writhing mass of muscle, the ball was fed in straight (something I haven’t seen in some years), and the wrestling commenced. No touch-pause-be nice-line up-wussy-engage nonsense here. The ball flew out the back of the Baa Baas scrum and Gareth Edwards scrambled round, gathered, and sent the ball bulleting out to Phil Bennett. Revelation number two was the first lineout. Not only was there no lifting, but there was also no ‘supporting at the top of the jump’. Just an awkward throw and a hard bunch of men going up between the elbows and the wrestling. Willie-John thoroughly deserves his status as a legend of the game. And then there was the tackling. In his heyday Butchy wasn’t a patch on some of the coathangers being dished out left, right and centre.
So, having ascertained that the game was not for sissies in 1973, how was the open play? In a word, magnificent. A few minutes into the match Gareth Edwards manufactured and then rounded off one of the best tries I’ve ever seen. Huge sideburns on quick men exploiting gaps that only a millisecond earlier weren’t there. Angles of running, insight and forethought that beggared belief. Halftime was a quick sip of water without leaving the field and a hasty return to play. No need to decide on whether the ball being held on the ground deserved a short arm or a long arm, because when the lads went down they released the ball. Failure to comply with this basic law resulted in some opposition “slipper” resolving the issue summarily. In other words a huge distinction between rucks and mauls. The stands reverberated with Bread of Heaven and Land of my Fathers, and at full time the players were carried off on the shoulders of spectators like the valiant gladiators they were. So what does this mean for modern rugby and specifically the ELVs? I’m not one of those people who instinctively (and myopically) believes older is better, but to see the creative flair created out of necessity by pure genius was an absolute joy. The contrast between this and the weekend’s Super 14 is best summed up by Springbok Elephant Polo player (yes, really!) and one-time ref, Choppy Bands:
“When will the buffoons who think up these changes realise that backs don’t want acres of space? We used to see more running when the offside line at a scrum was the tunnel than we do with the back foot. Taking it 5m further back will just encourage more pick-and-go, which I hate! Creative, exciting backs (going backwards: Steyn, Russell, Fleck, Japie Mulder, Faffa Knoetze, Michael Du Plessis, Danie Gerber…) thrived in the close quarters because they can see space where others can’t. They suck people in, not by running into contact, but by exploiting the half-gap and creating chaos in a defence, thus freeing up space for wingers/fullbacks to run into. The ELVs are a massive step backwards and are a crutch for unintelligent backs who can’t see space. I am sick to death of the 8 man pick and go and the number 12 crash ball, both hallmarks of the ELVs. And one more thing: if refs enforced the straight ball into the scrum, it would make a helluva change to the dynamic of the game. Nothing like a heel against the head to liven things up!”
Do yourself a favour. Buy the game from Amazon and treat yourself. Not only is it a thoroughly enjoyable hour and a half, but it gives a perspective that we perhaps need from time to time. To quote the spectators, “Feed me till I want no more.”Tweet