Tragic loss for Ulster
The tragic death of Ulster's Nevin Spence puts our game into context says Stuart Barnes.
Last Updated: 17/09/12 2:51pm
The rugby world is mourning the tragic loss of Nevin Spence, his father and brother. The Ulster centre and two members of his family died in a slurry pit accident at the weekend; to their family the sincerest condolences from all of us at Sky Sports.
These tragedies put everything else in context. The politics of the game, the tactical nuances and all the great rivalries are nothing when compared with what occurred in Northern Ireland. Ulster has lost a fine player and committed young man, a family has lost three dear members. Our thoughts are with them.
This is one of those Monday mornings when we are all reminded that rugby union remains a game for all the business that surrounds it; within that game, it is worth considering the cynicism that went punished and rewarded at the weekend.
Punished in the sense that New Zealand really was at their most slow-ball cynical in Dunedin against South Africa; Richie McCaw is a great player. I am not part of the significant minority that regard him as a cheat who happens to be a fine player. He is a great player but he is as good a cynic as any. And to compound matters for South Africa, the All Blacks Number Eight, Kieran Read is not far behind.
The All Blacks slowed nearly all the Springbok ball down and it was no surprise that in the end the patience snapped. Nor was it any surprise that replacement prop, Dean Greyling was the man to administer rough justice with a brutal forearm smash to McCaw's head.
The prop forward has received a two week ban and rightly so. Jean de Villiers has diplomatically said such violent behaviour cannot be condoned. Yet don't wait for the admittance from Steve Hansen that McCaw's persistent infringing made him an eventual target. The All Black coach knows that players - historically - have delivered their own justice. Many referees lament the disappearance of the ruck, knowing the backwards motion of the boot and studs (never a downward stamp which was always beyond any form of 'law') has enabled the cheats to prosper.
And so the belligerent prop forward got the headlines and McCaw was punished with a nasty forearm blow. But New Zealand, the transgressors for most of the game were rewarded with a win which the world champions hardly merited.
We have a horrible habit of screaming about the effect and ignoring the cause. Professional cynicism is on the increase and it seems likely to thrive until we start looking at why the headline incidents occur.
Getting it wrong
At a pre-season meeting in Twickenham, Ed Morrison, the 1995 World Cup final referee, now in charge of RFU referees explained the rationale for the extra use of the Television Match Official. The game is trying to ensure it gets more of the big decisions (re tries and acts of serious violence) right. That is commendable but it does not address the more insidious concern that is the creeping growth of cheating; refusing to give the ball to opposing players when they have conceded a free kick, jersey tugging, lazy running backwards and of course, slowing ball at the breakdown are all greater reasons to worry about the future direction of the game than the odd missed try or wild use of a forearm.
The five seconds rule is a classic example of the game's thinkers getting it wrong. Nobody wants to see the ball held for a seeming eternity at the back of the ruck but the real problem is not time but how sides can hold it there under no pressure. It occurs because the breakdown is almost exclusively an off the feet experience. The rare breakdown where players stay on their feet and drive opposition away from where the ball is located is something to treasure for its very rarity. Yet the breakdown is supposed to be a scrap between players on their feet. Instead attackers flop in front of their carrier to secure it from defenders. Occasionally it is penalised but most of the time it happens without the referee worrying. The odds against getting penalised make it a gamble worth doing and the game is therefore played slowly and illegally.
The same applies to crooked feeds at the scrum. When the moon turns blue the scrum half is penalised but feed often enough and the odd free kick makes eminent sense. If the put in is really so unimportant an issue why not scratch the feed from the rule book. Laws at the moment are being interpreted rather than followed and that leads to confusion and all too often, alas, a frustrated forearm going where it most definitely should not.