Reinvigorate rugby by re-drawing battle lines, only a bit wider

John Inverdale

FIRST the good news. It wasn’t the dreariest match in history even though it might have felt like it at the time. Of the millions who watched Scotland against Wales on television on Saturday, it would be interesting to know how many dozed off in the second half.

A match that reluctantly enters the record books for providing more penalty kicks at goal than any previous international, it was ruined by a combination of the weather, some abject refereeing and player indiscipline that made the job almost impossible. The Ireland versus France game that followed wasn’t a whole lot better. It’s one of those days that should genuinely have the sport’s administrators reaching for the law book to see what aspects of the game could be amended, notably when it comes to the breakdown, where it often seems totally arbitrary as to which player is penalised. Because it’s often been the worst matches that have had the most beneficial effect on the sport.

Murrayfield on Saturday was a positive thriller compared to the equivalent fixture 50 years ago, when the two sides contrived to produce no tries, just six points and 111 line-outs. No you haven’t misread that: 111. (And that, incidentally, is not the record as New Zealand played South Africa in 1921 and somehow found time in 80 minutes for 114.) David Watkins, playing at outside-half for Wales in 1963, touched the ball five times in the game, and it is said that not a single pass was received by either set of centres. It was this calamitous bore that forced changes to the laws about kicking for touch.

But here’s a thought. Maybe it is not the game and its laws, per se, that are at fault. Perhaps the dimensions of the field of play are now too small at the top level. In 1963, there was barely a player over six feet tall in the forwards, or five foot 10 in the backs. The behemoths of the modern game are now so fit, honey they have shrunk the pitch. There just isn’t any space any more. So players go into contact over and over again, and referees have to blow the whistle and award penalties over and over again, and a stop-start sport stops and starts more than ever.

So here’s a random, but genuine suggestion to the International Rugby Board, that they might consider some trial matches with the pitch an extra 5-10m wider. Just to see what happens. Because the players aren’t going to get any smaller, and the problem is only going to get worse, when for the future growth of the sport, the entertainment has got to get better.