Were you lighting candles? Were you reaching for your prayer mat or your oxygen mask or were you just cowering behind the sofa with your fingers in your ears? No, neither was I. Thirteen years after the last abject anti-climax to a pulsating game of European knock-out rugby, there we were again last Saturday watching Munster and Toulouse being forced to revisit the very same excruciation, albeit in a slightly abbreviated form. Enough already. This is little more than a crapshoot.
Drama, you say? Tension? A compulsive spectacle? Best stick to watching car crashes, then, because, essentially, this is all it is. Who’s going to miss first? That’s the bet in a penalty shoot out because that’s the only way it gets decided; namely, who’s going to end up tottering away with his head in his hands and his nuts in the grater of social media? Props, of course, can’t understand what all the fuss is about. ‘Would love to be in the mix for this kicking comp,’ tweeted Mako Vunipola last Saturday and there isn’t a loose-head prop alive who wouldn’t think the same. This is precisely why they’re loose-head props.
Back in the day, rugby’s answer to Russian roulette was the laziest of imports from soccer, a colossal assumption in itself given there are plenty who think it’s a complete clunker even in the round ball game. But at least in football, it’s a direct duel; your penalty-taker against their ‘keeper. In rugby, it’s not even ‘rock, paper, scissors’; just a reduction of a multi-faceted team game to one single element. We might just as well have a competition for the straightest line-out throw. Or the longest touch finder. Or the most perpendicular feed into a scrum. On second thoughts, perhaps not the last one. There hasn’t been a straight feed into a scrum in fifty years.
What are we doing here? ‘It’s cruel on the players but it’s an incredible spectacle’; that was one popular take on the Munster/ Toulouse denouement, which is exactly what the Tudors used to say about bear-baiting, or what they would’ve said had they given a tinker’s cuss about the bear or the dead dogs. Effectively, what this commonly-held view adds up to is never mind the life-long scar it may leave on the player who misses, it’s ten minutes of cheap melodrama for the rest of us.
‘It’s a supreme test of skill, nerve and bottle’, say the apologists. And so it is. Then again, so is driving northbound on the southbound M1 at rush hour on a Monday morning but it’s no way to decide who gets to play Leinster in a Heineken Cup semi final
Cast your mind back to 2009. Who shanked it in the Cardiff/ Leicester semi final shoot out? Martyn Williams, right? Wrong. The correct answer, in order, is Johne Murphy, Tom James and Martyn Williams. Yet the guy who’s walked around for thirteen years with a dead albatross around his neck has been the man who missed last or, as it was succinctly put at the time, the cat who was asked to bark. ‘It was pretty difficult to take it all in’, Martyn said afterwards. ‘It was just a horrible night. Somebody was going to miss…I’ve just got to live with the fact that it was me.’ This is a player who served his sport with distinction for Cardiff, Wales and the Lions. That afternoon, his sport let him down.
Yes, okay, we’ve moved on from the beef-witted stupidity of forwards being asked to kick penalties to kickers being asked to kick penalties; the downside being, as we saw in Dublin, that one player now has the chance to miss twice. ‘It’s a supreme test of skill, nerve and bottle’, say the apologists. And so it is. Then again, so is driving northbound on the southbound M1 at eight o’clock on a Monday morning but it’s no way to decide who gets to play Leinster in a Heineken Cup semi final.
What rankles all the more is that there are obvious alternatives. No question, several are duller than a thaw but at least they add up to a collective responsibility for the outcome; count back on cards, or penalties conceded during the game or – taking the tournament as a whole – tries scored, try difference, points scored, points difference etc. If knockout venues can be decided on pool performance, then why not a deadlocked quarter final?
In other words, we want both teams trying to win it rather than forty players standing on the sideline hoping the poor sod out there with the short straw and the kicking tee has remembered to bring his bollocks
I know; it ain’t exactly sexy. And folk gathered around slide rules at the end of extra time isn’t much of a page turner for the rest of us. Which is why the game has to be decided on the pitch, by as many players as possible and, given injuries are often more prevalent among the leadened legged, in the shortest feasible time-frame. In other words, we want both teams trying to win it rather than forty players standing on the sideline hoping the poor sod out there with the short straw and the kicking tee has remembered to bring his bollocks.
So extra time, with twenty minutes of fifteen-a-side; that goes. Instead, you play Golden Try with reduced numbers; reduced by how many and how often being the – potentially – volatile debate. But if, just for the sake of argument, you played 12-a-side for ten minutes (minus two forwards and one back – props exempted) and then, if necessary, 7-a-side for ten minutes, you’d clearly free up enough space and create enough opportunities for a team to grab the game, either with a strategic, collective effort or one moment of individual brilliance.
True, someone, somewhere might still miss a tackle or chuck an interception and crawl away from the stadium dressed in a cap and bells but at least you’re giving the game a chance to be won rather than lost. You’re also setting an examination of the full set of rugby skills rather than just the one and, what’s more, you’re testing the ingenuity of both teams and coaches. Who stays on, who comes off; how do we adapt to what they’re doing and how best do we exploit what they’re not?
Look, you can play around with this reduced players’ format as much as you like. Not everyone’s going to agree on one obvious option but a consensus shouldn’t be impossible. One mooted suggestion was a fifteen-a-side Golden Try format with one player removed every five minutes but with the opposition deciding which player that should be, props again exempted. Not sure Antoine Dupont would be in favour of that one but it’d be intriguing.
The mercy, of course, is that we’re talking about a conundrum that’s almost as rare as a Sumatran rhinoceros. But, that said, the Heineken Cup’s now held two shoot outs and both have left a sour taste; intriguingly, too, both have been lost by the home team, which perhaps, gives us an insight into the pressures the players are feeling. Did Ben Healy find it easier lining up his shots under the silent, imploring gaze of 40,000 of his own supporters or did it simply add to the already crushing weight of responsibility? Only he’d know.
But EPCR needs to be, at the very least, considering other less lazy and less unimaginative options than the perdition of penalties. There’s no magic bullet here; whichever way you slice it, it’s unsatisfactory but surely the better option has to be to play it out in some form or other. And may the better team win.