The national obsession starts up again this week. Here's a few improvement ideas for rugby.
1. Encourage the TV commentators to be a little kinder on the referees. Players contest the breakdown, and commentators contest breakdown decisions. Constantly. Continually analysing this highly subjective area of the game is pointless, unfair on referees and affects the legitimacy of the sport. A few of our commentators appear to believe they know the rules better than the whistlers, which I bet they don't. The main point here is that breakdowns can indeed be things of beauty if there is greater acceptance that interpretations of them are largely in the eye of the beholder. Rugby by nature is something of a lottery folks - and the game appears all the better when you accept that. As for coaches who keep demanding greater consistency at the breakdown, they are usually excuse-makers who should put more energy into doing their own jobs better.
2. Allow very crooked scrum feeds. Why are people obsessed with putting the ball in straight? As if civilisation will come crashing down because halfbacks don't display a laser-guided set square honesty. Straight feeds actually encourage messy scrums - a bane of rugby - because the front row of the team feeding the ball cannot plant their feet as securely. Blatantly "crooked" feeds would encourage a cleaner, quicker dispersal of the ball, or at least allow shoving contests with less shenanigans between the front rows. There aren't any heeled tightheads these days, so what is the point of the supposedly "honest" feed which actually contributes to collapsed scrums and constant re-sets.
3. Introduce the John Mitchell rule. The former All Black coach, now in charge of the Johannesburg-based Lions, wants tap free kicks and penalties to be taken in line with the mark anywhere across the field. This would open up the game by stretching and tiring defences, and get the ball into spaces. The current technicalities work against the quick restart for no apparent reason other than forcing referees to operate like trainspotters.
4. Keep banging the drum about reintroducing more day games, which often produce the best rugby. Most of us accept the television imperatives - most of the audience is in front of the box, and television is the major funder. The ratings-motivated drive towards night games reflects what suits most of the audience so we can hardly complain too much when rugby (or any sport) takes this route. New Zealand rugby needs every cent it can get off the broadcaster and such are the pitfalls of international competitions. However, rugby has taken night scheduling too far. The balance is not right especially when New Zealand's tough winter conditions are taken into account along with a strong desire among many rugby supporters for more day games.
5. Embrace the drop goal. Drop goal attempts are way more exciting than watching endless rucks on the road to nowhere.
6. Introduce a second referee with the sole responsibility of setting and policing the offside lines.
7. Let go of New Zealand's Super 15 franchises rather than continuing the attempted pseudo privatisation of the five major rugby teams in this country. Obsessive central control has squashed tribalism and innovation - including in the money-gathering department - in New Zealand rugby. The game needs an injection of free-thinking and hard-nosed operators to compensate for the jobs-for-the-boys bureaucrats who have hijacked the game. Anyone who doesn't understand this should ask themselves why Ian Foster was allowed to park at the Chiefs awaiting the call-up from All Black coach-in-waiting Steve Hansen while the crowds evaporated from Waikato Stadium. This is not to say that the NZRU is necessarily wrong all the time, but the national administration needs to be given a run for its money. Open disputes and arguments and debate and conflict are exciting, healthy and honest. There is stuff going on in the game - but it's often behind closed doors. Compared with real professional sport, New Zealand rugby's Kremlin style is boring.
8. Stress the need for quick video refereeing decisions.
9. Quit those halftime TV interviews. "Yeah, no Brian - the boys are very positive after the first half and we just want more consistency and intensity." Yaaaaaaaaawn.
10. Insist that jersey numbers are clear. A small point overall - but a major one now and again.