Allan Massie: Andrew misses target by putting boot in laws

I ALWAYS liked Rob Andrew as a player, despite that infamous moment in the 1994 Calcutta Cup match when his errant hand secured England a match-winning penalty. He was a very good fly-half playing to England's strength , which was ten-man rugby, not hugely exciting but mighty effective.

He was usually preferred to his then rival, the free-running, adventurous Stuart Barnes. If the England sides he played for sometimes deserved the moan "boring England", they were successful in his best years and the Twickenham crowd certainly didn't seem to mind that matches were as often won by Rob's boot as by scintillating tries from Rory Underwood or Jerry Guscott.

But now he seems to have lost his touch. Here he is, England's director of rugby or whatever, telling us that the game has become boring, and that the IRB must amend the laws in favour of the side in possession or the crowds will drift away. This is his Gerald Ratner moment: our product is "crap" – so don't buy it.

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He has two principal complaints. The first is the present interpretation of the tackle law, which permits the tackler to get the ball in his hands so long as he is on his feet even if he is on the "wrong side" of the ball.

This leads to more turnovers which most of us think a good thing, but Rob says it isn't, because the possibility of being turned over makes players reluctant to run with the ball in hand and so leads to more kicking. Likewise players are afraid to run the ball out of defence in case they get isolated and are then penalised for holding on. So we get a lot of aerial ping-pong and fewer tries are scored.

Now uncharitably one might suggest that there would be fewer complaints coming from Rob and others at Twickenham, and also from a number of English journalists, if England were winning, rather than losing, matches. One might also add that they won a reprieve for their beloved rolling maul, having argued that by drawing in opposing forwards it created space for backs in midfield, and so more tries would be scored.

Not much sign of this, probably because the ball is seldom released from the maul till the maul itself has become stationary, by which time defences are in place.

Nevertheless his complaints deserve an answer. The most obvious is that it is up to players of the team in possession to support the ball-carrier. This requires them to knock the tackler back as soon as he has got to his feet and so to prevent him from securing a turnover. Likewise if a runner gets isolated and is penalised for holding on, this means that his team-mates have failed to be in position either to receive a pass or to get quickly enough to the breakdown to retain possession. Why blame the laws for the failure of players to do what they should be doing?.

England may have been unable to score tries (as, sadly, so have Scotland) and there may have been fewer tries this season in the Guinness Premiership. But this may say as much about the players and the attitude of coaches as about the laws. Moreover the laws are the same for the professional and amateur game, and there has been no shortage of tries in our Premiership 1. Last weekend there were only four matches because Ayr and Heriot's were engaged in the British & Irish Cup, but in these four games 21 tries were scored, eight in the Boroughmuir-Selkirk encounter.

On the weekend 14/15 November, 30 tries were scored in the six games, despite generally foul weather. An average of five tries a match doesn't suggest that games are dull.

Certainly there are laws one would like to see amended, others one would like to see enforced. I've written about these here often enough. Nevertheless it is clear that it is often the attitude of players and coaches that makes for boring games rather than the laws. If a team wants to play adventurous running rugby it can do so. In recent months both the Lions and the All Blacks have shown this is possible at the highest level.

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Admittedly defences are often on top, but this has always been the case. Actually the biggest change in the game in the last fifteen years has had nothing to do with the laws. John Beattie wrote a piece the other day in which he related how he had got his son Johnnie to watch a video of the 1986 Calcutta Cup which we won 33-6. "Great, Dad," was the response, "but where was the defence?" Answer: this was before defence coaches, many of them from rugby league, had introduced the league style of defence, with players staying out of rucks and spreading in a line across the field. It is this development more than any other which means there is less space than there used to be. I recently watched some clips of the 1993 Lions-New Zealand series in which some exhilarating rugby was played as forwards devilled in the rucks and mauls and backs ran against backs.

So perhaps people should stop moaning about the laws and instead ask just how inventive and imaginative the coaches are. If Rob Andrew really wants more exciting rugby, he should address himself to Martin Johnson rather than the IRB.