New year, new you? No, me neither. I definitely eat less Christmas cake in January and February compared with December, but that’s because it’s not Christmas any more. And I will likely weigh less at the end of January than I did at the turn of the year, but that’s primarily because I ate so much food in December that, by the end of the month, I was waking up in the morning and instead of feeling like a human being, feeling like a very large section of gone-off stilton cheese with eyeballs. Toxicity levels were sufficiently high that an immediate lifestyle change didn’t even feel forced, it felt like a relief. When eating becomes an aerobic event, you know you’re doing it wrong. Anyhow, I’ll make my own adjustments and hope they improve the quality of the product, and I’ll hope that rugby does the same in 2022.
A good start, even in a game so wonderful and universally beneficial as ours, might be to get rid of some of the bad bits. Because there are always bad bits, however much we like to hover up in the air, just high enough to allow us to look down our crooked noses at the likes of football and boxing and fox hunting (the foxy bit is a joke, so please receive it as one).
And actually, having just poured scorn on the anti-football section of Rugbyland, let’s start with one thing The Beautiful Game unarguably gets badly wrong: verbal abuse. Professional rugby players are nothing like as hateful as their roundball counterparts when it comes to abusing officials, but a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and it’s fair to say the rugby boys have begun their journey. The bleating (and yes, I did it, too), the groans, the sermons having to be dished out by these poor referees every time a big call is made, the unceasing calls for absolute, metronomic consistency from human beings who are asked to make split second calls as their heart rates fly and fans and players alike scream at them whatever the call, both before and after the whistle has been blown. If the horrific language thrown routinely at football officials represents the deeply anticlimactic finishing post of said thousand-mile journey, then professional rugby is probably at the half-way point. So there are decisions to be made, and it seems as though someone has made them.
As much as we all love and respect Billy Vunipola, seeing Luke Pearce march him back twice recently for dissent was a beautiful thing. Purely for what it means to the game – the amateur game, the kids playing up and down the land who, whether the professionals like it or not, regard guys like Billy as role models – it felt both seismic and somewhat overdue. And by the way, how good is Luke Pearce these days? Brilliant, I say.
Football, you see, has bottled that bit completely. Without labouring an obvious point, send off a couple of big name, 150-grand-a-week footballers for swearing at the referee and pretty bloody quickly all that will slow down and stop. That’s a lot of cash to pay someone not to play because they swore at someone. It’s the same with diving. Ban them for it, and they will stop.
Caterpillar rucks are ugly and boring, and all they lead to are box-kicks which, once you’ve seen 20 in the same match, can become awfully boring, too.
Next up, the caterpillar ruck. Ban it. I should try to be more erudite here as this is a column and I am its writer, but it just looks awful because it is awful. Box kicking can be an excellent weapon when well executed, but it is nowhere near exciting enough to justify the prominence it has achieved in the modern game. Caterpillar rucks are ugly and boring, and all they lead to are box kicks which, once you’ve seen 20 in the same match, can become awfully boring, too. So they are a boring means to an often-boring end. I’d love them to be sacked off and for scrum halves to again have to get their kicks away under bona fide duress.
Now I’m retired, I rather like the notion of removing all tactical substitutions from the game, too. After an inevitable period of physical adjustment, it seems likely that a couple of changes would come about. Players would be more tired towards the end of matches which theoretically leaves space for attackers to exploit, and the heaviest players would, presumably, become marginally less powerful as endurance became a bigger part of their weekly requirement. It really just feels like a reasonable step towards eventually making the game – while still lots to do with big men doing aggressive things – less ‘serve and volley’. It’s a move that would have questions to answer in terms of player welfare, I’m sure, but one likely bonus there is that knackered players wouldn’t have to face fresh ones. If we want our game to be geared as far as possible towards attacking play, then fatigued defenders would seem an interesting place to start.
I’m running out of space now, but there are a few things that are exciting me about rugby in 2022. Marcus Smith excites everyone, but his unofficial battle with George Ford is a spin-off drama I’m keen to observe. Ultimately Eddie Jones will decide who comes out on top, but as things stand George Ford is the best fly half in England and that just has to count for something. Well, it doesn’t have to, actually, but I rather think it should. One of them starting for England and the other on the bench would seem both dreamy and fair, but we all know that England’s boss, a bit like the two tens in question, does what he wants.
Dave Ribbans might finally achieve the international recognition he so richly deserves this year, and it wouldn’t be before time
Ellis Genge locking horns with Dan Cole next season? Yes please. Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler on the same team, leathering people, sledging and provoking, doing whatever they want on social media at a club which seems to welcome the individual into the team environment? Also yes please.
Dave Ribbans might finally achieve the international recognition he so richly deserves this year, and it wouldn’t be before time. Itoje, Lawes and Hill sit at the top of that deep pile of English locks, and rightfully so, but, though Joe Launchbury will have his say once fit again, Ribbans should be right up there in that conversation. Will Collier might end up being impossible to ignore, too, so outstanding is his set piece work, and sharing games at Quins with Wilco Louw will only help keep him fresh and prolong his career. You could put him an against any international side in the world and he would deal with them – he’s that good. Further back, I love to watch Alex Mitchell play. I realise there are a great gaggle of wonderful scrum halves in England right now, but I still think that this is a man who runs a game so well and keeps honest opposition defences with such regularity, that he might still become the main guy. Once again, it’s all up to Eddie.
Happy New Year to you all, and enjoy the game.