ELVs hysteria proves to be unfounded
October 22, 2008
An increase in kicking has meant competition for the high ball has become a more important element of the game © Getty Images
For several seasons now the start of the Heineken Cup has become synonymous with the European season moving into top gear.
The early season skirmishing is over, the starting line-ups truly reflect the strength of the teams and everybody is wanting to impress before the November international season.
This year, it is even more important because it signals the first real chance to evaluate the new ELVs - being trialled at the top level for the first time in the Northern Hemisphere. Now, after two weekends of wonderful, full-blooded competition I think it is fair to say hysterical predictions of total meltdown with the beautiful game being ruined beyond recognition were a massive over-reaction.
I always believed the more structured European game, with greater emphasis on the set pieces and the maul in particular, would give a better chance to judge the pros and there have certainly been some positives along with the negatives. Contrary to the expectations of some the maul is alive and well in the north even if it is an endangered species in the south (I would argue that has more to do with the direction in which Super 14 rugby has been heading for the last decade than any new laws).
Munster were instantly recognisable as Munster and showed against Sale it is possible to counter attempts to pull down the maul. By moving the ball quickly away from the epicentre they rediscovered the art of the real rolling maul, unleashing Jerry Flannery and a couple of cohorts just when the opposition thought they had weathered the storm. One of the other accusations was that this was an Australian plot to de-power the scrum. There was little evidence of that in the Tri-Nations (Australia actually looked stronger in the front row than for some time) and there is certainly no indication that European teams have downgraded the importance of scrummaging.
There were some tremendous contests for scrum supremacy that appear to show coaches are already realising a power surge is the perfect way to maximise the advantage from the new 5 metre offside line at a scrum - Iain Balshaw's try against Cardiff, a perfect example. But before people start labelling me as an ELV apologist there are also a number of side effects that were not foreseen and I have already seen enough to say they should be abandoned as soon as possible - practically that is after the next IRB Laws Committee meeting in the new year.
One of those, surprisingly, is the simple little change that says the line-out will take place on the 22 and not where the kicker finds touch (providing that is further up-field) if he kicks directly into touch having received the ball from a team-mate from outside the 22. It seemed innocuous - not really necessary but an incentive to keep the ball in play - but it appears to have added significantly to the aerial ping-pong that is one of the blights of the modern game.
In 1963 there were 111 line-outs in the Scotland v Wales game as Clive Rowlands, the Welsh scrum-half and captain, just worked the dominant Welsh pack up the touchlines (Wales won 6-0 from a penalty and a drop goal). As a result the Australian Dispensation as it was first known became law and kicking directly into touch from outside the 22 was outlawed.
In that match the ball was probably only in play for about 15 minutes and the average was only about 20. Since then it has risen to over 30 and the new ELV was supposed to help boost that still further. But (as several people have pointed out) what is the point of the ball being in play if it is always 50 feet in the air!
In a recent survey of the ELVs , Dick Marks, who was Australia's National Coaching Director for 22 years, quotes Graham Henry and Wayne smith on the growing importance of the kicking game. 'Last weekend (the final Bledisloe Cup game in Australia) we had 38 kicks we received and in a normal game it would be a third of that,' said Henry. 'It's become more of a kick and chase game.'
That to me is a damning indictment of what Smith calls the 'Law of Unintended Consequences' which he claims have hijacked the whole ELV project. The idea was to see more ball in hand and if any of the ELVs are having the opposite effect they should be scrapped immediately.
Fortunately we are not even having to go through with the trials on replacing penalties with free-kicks. After the southern hemisphere trials I have joined those labelling that particular change as a cheats charter.
By the end of November we shall have seen enough north v south international matches to know which ELVs are and are not working. Perhaps the IRB should bring forward their proposed January meeting and kill off those that are counter-productive before the start of the Six Nations.
There seems little point in prolonging the agony if the results are already conclusive.
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