Swan turns ugly duckling

As rush defences continue to strangle what was once enterprising back play, rugby’s beautiful swan is turning into an ugly duckling.

That, and the horrendous time delay in setting scrums, has been a blight to a game which no longer attracts the Super Rugby crowds it once did.

Both need attention by lawmakers who have turned a blind eye to the problem for too long.

What makes it so bad is that defenders not only rush up to the ball carrier, which is fine, but are also allowed to block his pass by forming a wall alongside potential receivers.

The 2017 British and Irish Lions found it the best way to stifle the brilliance of Beauden Barrett in the drawn series against the All Blacks although the ordering off of Sonny Bill Williams in the second test was also a major contributing factor.

Many years ago rugby league opened up its game by converting the three-yard rule to 10 metres which gave players more freedom and space to exhibit their attacking skills.

I’m not advocating that union should go to that extreme but some tinkering of the present laws is needed.

Rugby union can still be attractive as evident in the last round 31-31 draw between the Chiefs and Highlanders when former NZ Under 20 captain Luke Jacobson reminded the All Blacks selectors he’s also a good No 6 prospect.

Generally, however, the games were disappointing with the impressive Sharks defence nullifying the Crusaders enterprise in their 21-all result and their scrum embarrassing loosehead prop Joe Moody on more than one occasion.

The same applied to Ofa Tu’ungafasi and even Karl Tu’inukuafe when the Blues also failed to cope with the Brumbies’ rolling maul when hooker Folau Fainga’a scored three tries from lineout drives.

It didn’t help that lack of discipline was a major contributor to the Blues 26-21 demise although 11 consecutive penalties against them suggested Aussie referee Damian Murphy turned a blind eye to the Brumbies’ faults.

Once again blindside flanker Tom Robinson was a tireless worker for the Blues while veteran second-five Ma’a Nonu tried valiantly to bust the tight Brumbies defence.

Ma’a Nonu tried valiantly to bust the tight Brumbies defence.

Although Mitchell Hunt’s last second converted try earned the Crusaders their draw against the rugged and highly disciplined Sharks, the team badly missed Richie Mo’unga’s direction and enterprise.

Hence there were few opportunities for Jack Goodhue and Braydon Ennor to develop their midfield combination in the absence of Ryan Crotty.

Of greater concern to the national selectors will be the injury that forced champion Highlanders fullback Ben Smith to limp painfully from the field.

Fears that it was a knee injury were averted when it was confirmed as a hamstring but fans will be anxious he makes a quick recovery.

With Damian McKenzie gone for the season, Smith and Jordie Barrett are the only two specialised fullbacks left for the World Cup although the versatile Beauden Barrett, David Havilli, George Bridge and Will Jordan are utility players who can fill the spot if need be.

None, however, possess the experience of the genial Smith.

 

  • Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author.