ELVs: the verdict

IRN’s man down south Iain Fletcher gives his verdict on the ELVs about to hit the game across the rest of the world

So it has come to pass that the southern hemisphere really does rule the rugby world?

Why else would their confounded Experimental Law Variations be considered and in part adopted by the IRB so swiftly after a single season of, quite frankly, mixed results in the Super 14 and defunct Australian Rugby Championships?

That is a question for another time. What is not is the fact that the northern hemisphere has to adopt some of the ELVs for tour matches, Six Nations and so forth from next year.

The politicking of getting them adopted so quickly within two years of the next World Cup - as demanded by the IRB’s own rules - has been shameless but are they as bad as feared? I am not so sure.

I wintered in Australia and watched, both live and on TV, plenty of Super 14 rugby so I shall endeavour to give a frank summation of what I enjoyed and did not from the ELVs.

Firstly let us ignore this rule of the defensive line being five metres back from a set piece. Players have cheated for years by getting offside and stultifying the space that the speedsters need to operate in so all this has done is take the game back to a fairer contest between attack and defence.

Or as John Mitchell, coach of Western Force, put it: “It has basically taken the game back to what the old rules were meant to be.”

No problem there then.

And what about this no kicking to touch if the ball is carried or passed back into the 22? Excellent news.

Teams have adopted the old exciting garryowen from their own half which has concentrated the action on bravery in the catch and chase. How much better is that than a series of line-outs? Not that I dislike a line-out. I just abhor the defensive mindset that teams adopt by passing back 10 metres to kick longer to touch.

Where there are concerns is the netherworld of the maul and the tackle area.

Ferocious competing for the ball at and immediately after the tackle is one of the joys of the game. Richie McCaw, legs spreadeagled but importantly still upright is a master of pinching the ball from the tackle zone.

He either gets the ball or gets a penalty. But no longer. The decision to punish infringements in this area with a seemingly endless succession of free-kicks has turned the game into a glorified tip and run session.

Hands in the ruck is the flankers’ weapon to steal or slow the ball down. They all do it, all practise it and expect to get ‘pinged’ for it as well.

It is their pickpocket skill of ‘getting away with it’ that separates the McCaws of this world from the ordinary back-rower. But now there is little deterrent they all have hands on the ball and the tackle area is a bit of a mess.

As for the new rule that a perfectly formed rolling maul can be legally taken down, well, you big men who enjoy the dark arts of the game might as well pack up and go home.

Oh there will still be a scrum or two for you to enjoy and try to exert some dominance over your opposing number, but as for the rest please kindly get out of the way of the slim young speedsters that we are all meant to salivate over.

The maul is a wonder of organisation and technique that saps the energy and will of the opponents. And to stop its onward progress teams have to either concede a penalty and maybe points, or commit more men which in turn leave gaps further out wide for when the ball is released. Perfect!

So why tinker with something that can benefit both forwards and backs?

This one I must confess has me absolutely flabbergasted. On many occasions we in the northern hemisphere have watched a good maul broken down by equally skilful defensive work as a player or two have worked there way from the back to the front and tackled the ball carrier.

A true contest of forward strength, skill and power and one that is integral to this game.

What most worries me though is the lack of subtlety in the game now. The beauty of rugby is that it offers big and small men a chance to contribute on the pitch and as part of a united team.

The increase in tempo via tap-and-go free-kicks has reduced the need for the big powerhouse men. Consider this. A team with a strong forward pack decides to opt for a scrum at every available opportunity to sap the will, strength, energy and heart from the opposition.

Excellent tactics until the opposition, more suited to tap rugby lose a couple of props to injury.

Then another couple come on and suffer the same fate. The team with the pack has won the battle up-front and should now dominate the match, except the scrums are now uncontested.

That would make the match a game of ‘rugby league’, or as one friend described it, ‘British Bulldog’.

The truth of the matter is the southern hemisphere is struggling financially and needs something, anything to get bums back on seats. The northern hemisphere has greater growth and produces some exhilarating rugby.

To support the former we are sacrificing the latter.

I love some of the changes the ELVs have brought in. I love the space the likes of Matt Giteau and Danny Cipriani will have to work in but I also love that space being created, grafted, earned by the cauliflower ear brigade.

They are just as important part of the game as the sleek men out wide and the beauty of the game as was that the backs needed the forwards. It was a symbiotic relationship.

Now the most important thing for the backs is the whistle in the referee’s mouth.