• He Picked Up the Ball and Ran

    I settled down to watch the Highlanders versus Moana Pacifika match this week in the expectation of seeing a good, competitive and skilful game of rugby and a welcome opportunity for the Pacifika team to demonstrate its skills. What I got was a clear (and first) win for the Highlanders, but was at the same time the very antithesis of the adventurous running game I had hoped for.

    There was a point in the second half when the Highlanders were awarded the latest of a series of penalties at a point near the halfway line. I shouted “No!” in frustration – not because the penalty was not justified, but because I knew what would inevitably follow. And sure enough, there was the inevitable kick to the corner, followed by a line out, and the equally inevitable rolling maul that produced a Highanders try.

    “Why”, I asked myself, “was no thought given to using the possession afforded by the penalty to launch a searing back line attack or a clever piece of deception?” Instead, we got a purely mechanical response, in which the attacking team went through the well-worn motions, with no hint of innovation, daring or subterfuge, or any of the plays that make rugby the best of all team games.

    The Highlanders are not of course the only culprits. The rolling maul has become the chosen go-to for every team that has run out of any other ideas, and it has achieved this status because it is, as is so often demonstrated, virtually impossible to defend against.

    It is virtually impossible to defend against because the rules apparently (and inexplicably) allow what is outlawed in any other play. The rolling maul allows any number of players (sometimes virtually the whole team) to drive forward, knocking opponents out of the way and clearing the way for one of their own players who has the ball and is behind them, and is immune from being tackled, even though he is in possession.

    Rugby has enough problems without deliberately legitimating a scenario that denies the essence and spirit of the game. My appetite for Super Rugby will be severely limited if there are too many further repetitions of the soulless fare that was served up in Dunedin. My version and vision of rugby is still of a game where the players “picked up the ball and ran.”

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