Crunch time as rugby changes hit home
This will be the year in which rugby players won't get engaged any more. It will be a bad year to be a South African Lion, but a good year to be a British Lion. It will be the year of the Kings and the year of the double header. And it will be a time to say goodbye to old stalwarts, a time to say hello to exciting new talent.
We have lived with "crouch, touch, pause, engage" (CTPE) for so long that it's hard to remember an earlier, quieter time, when front rows organised the business of scrumming. The only crouching done back then was by the locks and flanks; the front rows stood up and then folded into each other, like DNA zipping itself together. Now we have to get used to the new system and, judging by the three months of exposure in the northern hemisphere, it remains a work in progress.
It is, purportedly, the result of several years' work at committee level, in which case it is to be hoped that the International Rugby Board (IRB) believes it received value for money. One word gone ("pause") and another reinterpreted ("engage" becomes "set") seems like a poor return on investment. How much better if the IRB had simply accepted that its attempt at a better mousetrap had only resulted in a cleverer mouse.
In trying to eradicate the "hit", the lawmakers merely cast it in stone. Ian McIntosh, who sat on the committee that came up with CTPE claims that he had proposed a far simpler design: "bind, push." This simple system would have consigned the "hit" to history, and prioritised the push, which is, after all, what scrumming is supposed to be all about. Maybe by the time 2113 rolls around sanity will have prevailed.
But if the new scrum call seems like more of the same, there is novelty aplenty on the horizon elsewhere. The Lions have reacted to the loss of Super Rugby status by organising a comprehensive fixture list that includes games against all their erstwhile partners in the South African conference. They will also tour the United States in April, play four teams from France and the national sides of Samoa, Namibia and Russia, the latter on the preposterously early date of January 19.
The British and Irish Lions will tour Australia in June and July, playing three Tests along the way. The Wallabies are at a low ebb right now, with injuries, retirements and internal politics likely to make them the underdogs in front of their own crowds. Who knows where and in what code Quade Cooper will be playing by June? Equally, who knows what the Lions will look like before a Six Nations Championship that appears more evenly matched than for many years.
The six-week break from Super Rugby that comes with the Lions tour has forced the South African Rugby Union (Saru) to think out of the box. They have devised a four-team competition including Scotland, Italy and Samoa, with the best two sides meeting each other at Loftus Versfeld on June 22.
There will be international rugby in Nelspruit for the first time, at the picturesque but isolated Mbombela Stadium. Both Nelspruit and Durban will host double headers, with two Tests at the same ground on the same day, a local first. The administrative leeway for this innovation was created at the beginning of December when Saru took ownership of Test rugby.
For more than a century, Tests in South Africa have in effect been owned by the host union, with the income derived from gate receipts and catering acting as the carrot. Now Saru has persuaded the unions to fall into line with international best practice, a far-reaching decision that will have profound consequences for the game in this country.
Spreading the net wide
Another key decision was the one that granted the Kings Super Rugby status. Saru dithered for far too long and did not go far enough in empowering the Port Elizabeth-based union, who will in all likelihood have to play the Lions in promotion/relegation fixtures at the end of July and the beginning of August.
New blood in the competition has a different hue depending on where you're standing. In Australia, the introduction of the Melbourne Rebels was driven by the need to market the game outside rugby union's entrenched boundaries. As such it was welcomed as a necessary method to spread the net wide and grow the game.
By contrast, the Kings inhabit a region starved of top-level sport, but with a rich and multiracial history in the oval ball game. The union has adopted a long-term initiative aimed at retaining players either born or educated in the Eastern Cape. The short-term plans are a good deal more mercenary, however. It will be the task of the marketing department to get the locals behind a Kings team that is likely to mix players returning from overseas with some marginal local signings and a smattering of promising youngsters.
And as the year turns it is inevitably the youngsters who look forward to it the most. South Africa continues to churn out gifted rugby players and if, by the end of 2013, we have to say goodbye to Jean de Villiers, a bitter moment will be sweetened by the realisation that Raymond Rhule and a host of his teammates from the Under 20 World Championships are waiting in the wings.