Category Archives: Sport

Rugby should adopt Tennis’ replay system

Rugby Union is not my sport, but as a fan of team sports this particular Rugby World Cup is going very well – with epic encounters, high-quality action, and several shocks. In particular, the improvement of the “Tier 2” teams is a good sign for the global game.

However, I have found my enjoyment somewhat spoiled by the constant referring of decisions to the “TMO” (the “fourth referee” based in the stands with a TV screen). The problem is not that we do not want to see the correct decisions; it is, of course, perfectly apt to use technology to ensure the correct calls are made. The problem is that the excitement of a thrilling try is sharply reduced by a seemingly interminable wait for the decision from “upstairs”. As a result, some games are exceeding 100 minutes in on-field playing time.

It seems to me that there is a fairly obvious solution, which could be borrowed more or less from American Football or even Lawn Tennis. Instead of the referee “passing the decision upstairs”, each team could have a certain number of “challenges” (say, three each half). If the captain of the defending side felt there was any question of a foot in touch or a forward pass (or whatever), he could challenge the ruling and have it referred to the “TMO”; likewise the attacking side, in some instances, could appeal the disallowing of a try or even make a case for a penalty or penalty try in certain instances.

This would have the advantage of ensuring the correct decision was made when it really counts; but it would also avoid the game being slowed down so much. Furthermore, celebrating the epic moments – such as Wales’ equalising try nine days ago – would not be delayed by the agonising wait for the man upstairs!

The origin of the term “try”

The Rugby World Cup continues to draw in the crowds, with the “bonus point” system adding to the interest because it becomes potentially important to score four “tries”.

So why is it called a “try”?

Essentially the original game of “football”, once it moved from entire towns on to a field, consisted most often (though it varied from town to town and school to school) of two posts placed at either end. The aim was simply to manoeuvre the ball through the posts, initially by almost literally any means, to score a “goal”.

This was, evidently, madness – one French diplomat said that if “football” was the English at play, he would not like to see them at war!

Thus, various clubs and schools came to adopt different restrictions about how the ball may be moved. Eventually, by the mid-Victorian era, many had come to follow the rules adopted by Rugby School said to have originated in 1823, which had various moves outlawed but allowed handling by all players; others followed the rules of an association of schools adopted in London in 1863, which came to allow handling only by one player in his own half. Hence were born Rugby Football (colloquially “rugger”), and Association Football (colloquially “soccer”).

Both codes and all major successor forms of “football” except Aussie Rules eventually adopted a crossbar (which was initially, in fact, merely a piece of tape but later came to be a horizontal pole similar to the vertical ones forming the posts), with a “goal” in Rugby Football and its successor Gridiron codes scored above the bar, and in Association Football below. (Gaelic Football, of course, cunningly allowed both – the scoring value for below the bar settled on three times the value of over the bar just over a century ago, having initially been higher.)

The Rugby code came to have four distinct ways of kicking a “goal”. One was a penalty kick, awarded as a sanction for foul play, which was (and is) a free placekick; a second was (and is) a dropped kick, taken from free play; a third was a kick from a mark, a dropped kick taken after a fair catch (fair catches can now only be called inside a team’s own 22, and this method of scoring was formally abolished in any case forty years ago); and a fourth was a placekick taken after touching the ball down (officially “grounding the ball”) in the opposing team’s in-goal area (in line with the touchdown location). Thus, when a team touched the ball down on or over the opponents’ goal line, they were said to have a “try” at goal – noting that initially the goal was only scored if the kick was successful, and the touchdown itself had no scoring value.

Different schools and clubs moved at slightly different speeds in practice, but within decades the unfairness of the worthless “try” became apparent. Thus, a “goal” of any sort became worth five points, but a “try” even without a successful kick was awarded two points (thus, effectively, towards the end of the 19th century a “try” was two points and a “conversion” three, with any other goal worth five).

Ever since, of course, the “try” has increasingly been seen as the most exciting method of scoring, and has thus increased in value to become the main means of adding points (as well as a prominent tiebreaker between teams on equal points in league rankings), as other kicked goals have consequently been reduced in value. This has happened, albeit to varying degrees, in all successor codes – Gridiron and Rugby League as well as Rugby Union. Nevertheless, in the Rugby codes, the name “try” remains, a vestige of when it was in itself worthless!

That is why a “try” is called a “try”.

Why is a “touchdown” in Gridiron called a “touchdown” when you don’t have to touch the ball down? No idea – I’ll leave that to the readership…!

History of Rugby World Cup: 2011

To conclude this series just as the current edition gets going…

2011 was the year of redemption for the All Blacks, at home in New Zealand – but it was close!

The tournament really got going in the quarter finals, each of which was keenly contested aside from New Zealand’s easy win. Two big Northern Hemisphere clashes went the way of France (by totally outplaying a poor England) and Wales (by beating Ireland in every area of the field in the second half to win 22-10). The most bizarre game was the Tri-Nations clash between Australia and South Africa – the Wallabies literally only made it into the South African 22 once in the entire match, but scored a try when they got there and then clung on, with the addition of a dodgy penalty on their only visit to the Springboks’ half in the final quarter, to nick an 11-9 win despite being utterly outplayed.

In the semi, New Zealand unsurprisingly reversed previous defeats to its trans-Tasman rivals with an easy win. The story came in the other match, where Wales, reduced early to 14 men after captain Sam Warburton was red-carded, put in a monumental effort and even mustered the game’s only try, but narrowly missed three kicks in the last half hour to miss out agonisingly 9-8.

The final was similarly low scoring, almost like games of yesteryear, as the occasion got to the hosts. Having comprehensively beaten France in the group, New Zealand staggered through the repeat of the first ever final, and the final whistle on a torturous 8-7 win against a traditional bogey team was greeted with relief as much as jubilation.

History of Rugby World Cup: 2007

2007 was the most bizarre World Cup, won by South Africa without having to play a single top-notch team after the defending champions emerged from nowhere to reach the final.

The story of the tournament wore white. The English were reigning Cup holders but came in as no hopers. That status was confirmed by a savage 36-0 beating at the hands of South Africa in the group phase, meaning no one would have been more surprised than the Springboks to be confronted by the very same team in the final in Paris.

As is now typical, the quarter finals made the tournament, even though the eventual winner cantered through them (South Africa ended up facing Fiji). Argentina had set the tournament alight with an opening game win over France, earning an easier quarter final against Ireland which the Pumas won easily. However, the Northern Hemisphere still managed to enjoy its best ever day in the tournament – Australia sought to avenge its final defeat against England (the way England had in reverse in 1995) and scored the game’s sole try, only mysteriously to crash upon the rocks of a determined defence 12-10; as if that was not stunning enough, New Zealand then succumbed again to bogey team France in an epic decided by the razor thin margin of one conversion, by 20-18.

As a result, it was left to the Springboks to dismiss the Pumas and reach the final without playing either a Six Nations or Tri-Nations team in the knock-out phase. The other semi was a grubby affair, settled by the game’s only try right at the start and then as so often by the boot of Jonny Wilkinson, from the mark and the field, 14-9.

No one could quite believe that a team thrashed to nil a month earlier had made it back to the final, far less that Wilko’s army would now face the team which inflicted the savaging. After the drama of the earlier rounds, it was all a bit disappointing – no tries and Percy Montgomery’s boot always putting the Springboks too far ahead. The 15-6 scoreline meant England, in fact, conceded more points in the knock-out phase than it scored. Both sides, nevertheless, headed for home content.

History of the Rugby World Cup: 2003

2003 saw the only Northern Hemisphere victory as England’s supreme organisation secured a Grand Slam-World Cup double.

England’s first big test was in the group against South Africa – the 25-6 scoreline was slightly flattering. The quarter-finals were memorable only for the way in which Wales tested England, leading for much of the match. This left one all-Southern and one all-Northern semi – the hosts Australia saw off a miserable New Zealand and Jonny Wilkinson’s boot saw off France (the French lost by 17 despite scoring the game’s only try).

The final made the tournament, and remains perhaps the best ever. The hosts shot off the blocks with a superb early try from Lote Tuqiri, which was equalised late in the first half by Jason Robinson, which alongside three penalties gave England a comfortable lead 14-5. However, three Elton Flatley penalties were the only scores of the second half as the visitors were blanked, and thus the game went to extra-time. England finally got some points, only for Flatley to strike again to bring it to 17-17 right at the end. Step up Jonny Wilkinson, who literally wrong-footed the Aussies for the game’s winning field goal right twenty seconds from the whistle.

Tonight could be justice for a special manager

In 1988, my late grandfather was taken into hospital for a hip replacement. We visited every day and, like any vaguely adventurous 10-year-old, I soon found a much more interesting patient elsewhere in the ward!

The young gentleman opposite had, sadly, been involved in a serious accident rendering him (at the time at least) unable to walk, which was a particular tragedy because he was in fact a highly promising footballer, who (it soon became apparent, though he was too modest to claim it himself) would have been good enough to make it “across the water”. So soon my visits involved a cursory greeting to my grandfather before the real visit to this young man, football-mad as I was, got underway.

Sadly I do not recall his name, but I do recall we watched highlights of Liverpool drawing 3-3 against Manchester United (which dates all of this to around 4 April 1988, in case he or someone who knows him happens to be reading…)

My excitement was only heightened, massively, by news that this gentleman had a close friend who played for Newcastle United. I remember, before my next visit, ensuring that I brought a treasured panini sticker album to show his picture and confirm his identity. In fact, it turned out this player, despite this being the closing stages of the season, was crossing the Irish Sea frequently (at least weekly, if my memory serves) to visit. And indeed my grandfather had the good grace not to recover too quickly that I couldn’t ensure one of my visits coincided with the player’s visit, and as a 10-year-old I revelled in the excitement of discussing life as a real top-flight professional footballer with the visitor and his injured but wonderfully friendly former colleague.

It always occurred to me what a wonderful thing it was that that player made the time and effort to visit a friend who had been as talented, but less lucky. Sadly I do not recall the name of the injured gentleman but I hope very much he made some sort of reasonable recovery.

I do remember the loyal and kind-hearted footballer of course, whose career I followed with eager anticipation after that. His name was Michael O’Neill.

History of Rugby World Cup: 1999

Australia became the first country to land two Rugby World Cups as the millennium ended. Of all the Rugby World Cups, 1999 may be the least memorable overall, but it perhaps contained the most memorable match.

A peculiar format resulted in a set of playoffs before the quarter finals, after which all of the Home Unions had been eliminated (England was drop-kicked out 44-21 by defending champion South Africa, for whom Jannie de Beer hit five field goals among 34 individual points).

As they had earlier in the year in the Cricket World Cup, Australia and South Africa played out a semi-final tie which resulted in Australian progression, this time after extra time. The other semi-final provided the most bizarre quarter hour in the history of the tournament. Jonah Lomu had New Zealand strolling to another comfortable semi-final win against France, when suddenly it all just went horribly wrong. Flowing, passing, running rugby saw the All Blacks shell shocked by four unanswered converted tries in direct succession.

Everyone was left stunned, even the French, who crumbled in the final 35-12 to the rampant Australians.

History of the Rugby World Cup: 1995

One vehicle driver got a surprise on the evening of the World Cup Final in 1995, when he found the captain of the winning team thumbing a lift – it was truly a World Cup which resounded, and even spawned a film.

Francois Pienaar could not quite believe the interest new South African President Nelson Mandela showed in the team before its first ever World Cup match, against none other than defending champion Australia. The Springboks dominated, and cruised through the pool phase with only one minor issue – James Dalton’s red card against Canada. This was to become curiously relevant.

The quarters were notable for a repeat of the previous Final, between England and Australia. Australia never led from early on but kept pegging England back, getting it to 22-22 heading into the final minute. Step forward that man Rob Andrew again, with a monster drop from the left side to put England through.

He would end up, maybe, wishing he hadn’t. In the semi-final, the English defence faced humiliation from the moment New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu literally ran over Mike Catt. Two tries already conceded, England still hadn’t registered when All Black forward Zinzan Brooke calmly unleashed a forty-yard dropped goal.

With one semi a metaphorical wash-out, the other was nearly a literal wash-out – and suddenly that earlier red card mattered. If the game were deemed drawn, for any reason, disciplinary record would decide it and South Africa would be out of its own World Cup. The game was played forty minutes late in a swimming pool, with France finally having to surrender while only four points down and camped on the Springbok line.

The final was not thrilling but was tense. At 9-9 going into extra-time, with Lomu stopped by courageous Springbok tap tackling, South Africa’s disciplinary record looked once again as if it may prove costly. At 12-12 at half-time in extra-time, this was even more so. Joel Stransky was left to step up, and ensure the happy ending, the celebrations – and the hitch hike of champions.

History of the Rugby World Cup: 1991

The first Northern Hemisphere World Cup merely confirmed Southern dominance as the era of amateurism and the four-point try approached its end. Yet it was not New Zealand but Australia, with stars Michael Lynagh and David Campese, who returned home with the gold.

The opening game hinted at ongoing Australasian dominance as New Zealand edged Grand Slam winner England 18-12 in London. Wales was humiliated, crashing to Western Samoa and exiting right at the start. Scotland, the previous year’s grand slam champions, was left to eliminate the South Sea islanders in the quarter final.

With New Zealand cruising past Canada, we seemed all set for one Northern semi and one Southern. Enter Gordon Hamilton, striding into the left-hand corner to put Ireland, incredibly, 18-15 up against the mighty Wallabies with just a few minutes remaining. Enter then Michael Lynagh, cool and calm under pressure, unwilling even to think of the drop to force extra-time, to lead his team through with a last-gasp try of its own.

Meanwhile in Paris England also rolled over the line for a late try to eliminate France 19-10. The scene was set for a repeat, eighteen months on, from the epic Grand Slam decider during the Poll Tax protests. In a game of much courage but little creativity, Scotland led 6-0, was pegged back to 6-6, and then ever reliable stalwart Gavin Hastings was left to slot a penalty midway through the second half from no distance, level with the right-hand post. Only the kick never came inside the post, England escaped to the other end, and Rob Andrew curled over the winning drop for vengeance and a place in the final.

The final was no better, with Australia always leading though somewhat fortuitous at times. A single, early converted try was the difference and the gold shirts lifted the gold trophy 12-6. Much would change before it was competed for again, not least the entry of a traditional rugby playing nation hitherto barred…

History of the Rugby World Cup: 1987

This is the first in a weekly series of my own memories of the Rugby World Cup, starting next month and ending at Halloween. Rugby is not my sport, by any means, but it is a great tournament (even though I think it goes on too long), and one which has already provided many great moments.

What a different game it was too. It was entirely amateur, with just four points for a try. Dropped goals were allowed direct from free-kicks (the first points in the Final came that way) and scrummages; place kicks (which included most kick-offs) were taken without tees. At half-time players remained on the field, there were no substitutions or cards, and (very much unlike football) players on the field barely celebrated scores at all. 

TV coverage was also more limited, with no ref mics or such like to indicate why penalties had been awarded or how the game was being managed. 

Things have certainly changed!

We may not have known from the first tournament, a straightforward win for New Zealand, the game’s dominant force, just what a fine competition this would become.

In 1987 there were only seven test-playing nations at cricket, and with South Africa similarly excluded, there were only seven senior rugby nations too – the “Five Nations” plus the two Bledisloe Cup rivals, Australia and New Zealand, who hosted the first tournament. Fiji was the extra country to reach the last eight – this was before the rise of Argentina and Italy.

As it was, New Zealand and Australia eliminated Scotland and Ireland respectively and Fiji fell to France. The only all-Northern match in the knock-out phase saw Wales comfortably defeat England.

For Europeans, in an era before multi-channel broadcasting and the tradition of staying up late for games, the tournament was really noted for a remarkable semi-final match between Australia and France. With New Zealand awaiting in the Final, a Wallaby victory was assumed and sure enough, the home side led for the most of the match. However, France ran in four tries to win 30-24 – an important win not just for France, but for Northern Hemisphere rugby.

The Final was a step too far, with the All Blacks dismissing France 29-9. But those two teams would have many a close-run thing in future…


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