As the 21st Century marches on, some sports are developing in ways that gradually take them away from the versions that we oldies grew up with and loved.
Change is inevitable, of course, but sometimes you wonder.
Back in the day – for me personally, the 1960s – county cricket was country cricket and, every so often Australia, India, Pakistan and the West Indies toured the UK to play five-match Test series.
There was a sense in which, watching Australian gods such as Norman O’Neill, Bill Lawry, Graham McKenzie and Alan Davidson take on our boys, you felt there was a direct lineage going back through Hutton and Washbrook … Wally Hammond, Jack Hobbs, Patsy Hendren, Harold Larwood … to their equivalents in Edwardian and Victorian times.
That the game was the same and Peter May, Colin Cowdrey, John Edrich, Trueman and Statham et al were simply its latest exponents on our behalf.
These days, Test matches are two a penny. Everyone plays everyone else in a three to five, instead of a ten year, cycle. Plus, Test matches are now seemingly losing out to the 50 over and 20/20 versions of the game. Cricket is chasing the big buck.
I don’t wish to sound like an old fuddy-duddy but, whilst I ‘hang on’ to the latest cricketing exploits as best I can, somehow in my mind’s eye they no longer match the overwhelming stature that their equivalents had forty years ago.
In many respects, similar applies to rugby union. The advent of the professional era in 1995 has changed things forever. The rules – and their interpretations – are constantly shifting in order to ‘improve spectator entertainment’. Arguably, despite this year’s tightening up, the ball can still be put squint into the scrum. Yet, you might think illogically in these circumstances, it has to be thrown in ‘straight’ at the line-out. Why bother, when you don’t have to do that at the scrum? It’s only another method of re-starting the action, after all …
Yesterday the 2014 Six Nations began.
The tournament still holds the European rugby fan base in its thrall despite ever-increasing growth of the club game, not least through the Heineken Cup, which – some might argue – offers near-equivalent, and sometimes better, quality play than its international counterpart.
And what games they were yesterday!
First, at the Millennium Stadium, Wales saw off Italy, but not without a few scares along the way. It was a welcome hors d-oeuvre for the France/England main dish of the day – well, if you were French or English, that is.
Both sides needed to win after their 2013 disappointments and, ahead of the game, the air of excitement and anticipation, not to mention apprehension, made for a nail-biting afternoon in front of the television.
For England it was a case of ‘so near and yet so far’. They’d clawed their way back into contention in the second half and seemed to have done enough to secure a famous victory of their own.
However, with the clock ticking down, France had to throw caution to the wind and begin to pass and play in something like their traditional style. The result could have gone either way and very nearly did. At the final whistle, this England fan was able to swallow the frustration and disappointment and simply embrace the joys of what had been a superlative game of rugby.
That said, I have two comments on yesterday’s match.
The first is a general one, relating to a rule change that has been around for a while now, but which renders the game of rugby a very different kettle of fish to what it was between (say) 1965 and 1990. I’m taking about the ‘Matchday 23’ – or, in other words, the substitutes bench and specifically tactical substitutions – rather than (as used to be the case) out-and-out bona fide ‘injury only’ ones.
This had radically altered the game of rugby. In the old days, two sets of fifteen men contested a game, sometimes literally fighting themselves to a standstill. It was not unknown for one team to go out into a healthy lead and then the other, possessed of greater all-round fitness and reserves of stamina, to come good in the last quarter of the game. As, in all good things, it wasn’t over until the fat lady sings, there was sometimes a poetic justice in this ‘last man standing’ version of the game.
These days, the standard snowstorm of comings and goings from about the 50th minute – starting with entire fresh front rows, and then courtesy of large men laden with the tag ‘impact players’ – can change the entire nature of a game.
Often, by the time there are just twenty minutes to go, the spectator thinks he has caught the mood of the ebb and flow of a game and can sense – for example – that one side has finally gained the ascendancy and will push on to take the game. The suddenly, a rash of tactical substitutions later, and (as they say) it is a whole new ball game. Brand new players flood on – the intensity might even go back up a notch – and, to all intents and purposes, you might as well forget everything that happened in the previous hour of action.
It’s as if the game has begun again.
It’s one of the things I don’t entirely accept about modern rugby. I know the arguments about ‘Matchday 23s’ – health and safety etc. – but, call me old-fashioned, I just think it’s wrong for any player to go into a rugby match knowing in advance, by arrangement, he’s going to come off after 60 minutes.
Can you imagine, for example, a situation in Formula One in which Sebastien Vettel, having reached lap 55 of a 70 lap grand prix, is suddenly called into the pits to let a brand new, albeit fresh, driver take over?
[Well, now I come to think of it, with Uncle Bernie’s madcap ideas for ‘double points’ in the last three races of the season, I probably can!]
Yesterday, for example, England scrum half Danny Care – who at the time was one of the most influential players on the pitch, instrumental in England’s revival – was hauled off after 60 minutes to be substituted by Lee Dickson. In the event, I thought Dickson did quite well – however, the change could just as easily have taken the wind right out of England’s sails.
Care had been causing France all sorts of problems and I felt sorry for him trudging off and not having the chance to enjoy what might easily have been an England victory from start to finish.
My second comment relates to the England full backs, Mike Brown and Alex Goode.
Brown was the ‘man of the series’ in the autumn internationals and is good defensively, kicks a mean ball to touch and gives everything to the cause every time he goes on the pitch. He’s an archetypal full back.
Goode, meanwhile, is a very talented footballer but, in my view, a luxury whom – for some reason – Stuart Lancaster regards as one he can afford.
Yesterday we saw the relative merits of Brown and Goode demonstrated with stark clarity. The opportunity was not by design, but prompted by debutant wing threequarter Johnny May busting his nose in the first ten minutes.
As a result, Goode came off the bench and Brown moved to May’s position on the wing to accommodate him.
My theme here is defence.
Having sung Brown’s praises in this department, I must admit he was left completely wrong-footed by the bounce of the ball for France’s first try, scored by Yoann Huget after only 32 seconds.
After coming on, Goode showed what he could do, fielding long kicks and returning them with interest, catching the eye with his darting and skipping runs through tackles when in possession.
However – as a Brown fan – I knew what might be coming when we came to crucial points at the business end of the game.
For Huget’s second try, Goode flapped at him, eventually trying to pull him back by the shirt, before – after a passing interchange and some thirty yards closer to England’s try-line – the French winger took advantage of another cruel bounce to carry the ball over in the corner.
For France’s third – and decisive – try, about five minutes before the end, Goode then bought a slick dummy by Gail Fickou, hook line and sinker.
My point is this.
Mike Brown is a rock solid, nailed on, specialist full back. Alex Goode is a talent, I grant him that, but the bottom line is that he’s a dilettante, creative, sort whose defence is frail.
England should play a full back at full back.
They should play Mike Brown in his proper position, not force him to play on the wing in order to get Alex Goode on the pitch somehow, somewhere.