Alex Massie

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot* (I think)

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Rugby World Cup blogging: well, that was a disappointing weekend wasn't it? For the second tournament in a row both semi-finals went the way I didn't want them so. Such is life. So England vs South Africa it is.

Both semi-finals demonstrated that it is easier to win games form a defensive posture than was the case even four years ago. The balance between defence and attack, out of kilter for much of the last decade, has been restored. One could add France's victory over New Zealand and Scotland's at home to England in 2006 as other examples of this trend. On the whole this is healthy for the game. But in each of these four games, the side that enjoyed the majority of possession and territory failed to take advantage of their chances and, in this respect at least, forfeited their right to victory.

The reason for this change, I think, is that referees have at long last been told to allow a contest for possession at the tackle. For a spell it seemed to be assumed that the side taking the ball into contact had an automatic right to retain possession and the if the defending side filched the ball the presumption was that they had done so illegally. Happily that has changed. Rugby is supposed to be a physical battle for possession and the new attitude at the breakdown has been a great step forward.

It's still not perfect of course.While permitting defending sides to slow the ball down is one thing, it's quite another to have entirely removed classical rucking from the game. Ruck ball should be quick ball and it can be thrilling to watch. If that means players slumped on the wrong side receive a shoeing then so be it. That'll learn them, as the old saying has it. So, as always, the glass is half-full: it's good that the defending side can have a legitimate shot at regaining possession, disappointing that the attacking isn;t allowed to clear bodies out the way. If nothing else permitting proper rucking would once again allow for a contrast in styles between those sides that preferred to ruck and those who loved to maul.

Other areas that could usefully be addressed: the set-piece. It's been encouraging to see a resurgence in scrummaging in this tournament. If England hadn't been permitted to destroy the Australian tight five in the scrum it's hard to see how they could have won the game.  Here too, however, we're only half-way towards the ideal: it's vital that the scrum be a proper test of power and technique and that it should be a vehicle for establishing forward supremacy, but it would also be nice if, again, it were more of a contest for possession. There was some talk that referees would ask scrum-halves to put the ball in straight: that has not happened. The pernicious theory that the scrum is simply a means of restarting the game has yet to be defeated. The attacking side already has the advantage of knowing when the ball will be delivered; it doesn't need the added benefit of having the ball delivered into the second row. It makes no sense at all that referees would insist that the ball be thrown in straight at the line-out but permit crooked feeds in the scrum. Then again, they're not as rigid on the line-out throw as I would like either.

This isn't just an argument about rugby theory either. Turnover ball is quick ball that produces attacking, exciting rugby. The IRB should be encouraging the creation of conditions that promote that. The side putting the ball in at the set-piece already enjoy the advantages of the House, there's no need to permit them to stack the deck as well.

I had, naturally, hoped for a France-Argentina final. But France played stupid rugby and didn't take their chances, while Argentina failed to execute, gifting South Africa points even as the Pumas enjoyed the better of the exchanges.

Can England rebound form the 36-0 hammering they received from the springboks in the pool stages? Perhaps. That was as bad an England performance as one can remember since the good bad old days of the mid-1980s when England were agreeably shambolic. But since then they have, miraculously, rallied, summoning the yeoman values of old England: a cussed, bloody-minded, obdurate refusal to believe that, despite all available evidence, all is lost.

The South Africans, by contrast, have bags of talent but seem determined not to let it express itself. Even if they weren't the South Africans that would be reason enough to hope they might be taught a lesson and lose. But of course they are South Africans too which leaves one in the odd,  discombobulating situation of, however tentatively or reluctantly, supporting England in the final. At least that's where I am now. I think. World gone mad, or what?

*Note to Americans, for some reason this old spiritual has become the preferred anthem of England rugby fans. I can't remember if anyone has ever come up with a convincing explanation for why this should be the case.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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