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Tuesday 12 December 2017

Law row an unwanted distraction

Gaffney fears for sport's integrity as game now beginning to resemble its league counterpart

There is a chance that Ireland could be distracted from focusing on the capture of a fifth Triple Crown in seven years against Scotland on Saturday, even though manager Paul McNaughton stressed how they "want it badly".

There remains a bitter after-taste at the perceived injustice of the International Rugby Board's timing in enforcing the emphasis on an existing law of the game, consequently causing confusion and dissatisfaction at the breakdown.

McNaughton has echoed Ireland's suspicion that the recent focus on a breakdown law could be working in favour of the southern hemisphere powerhouses.

"The emphasis on this law was discussed after the November (international) series. There definitely was a briefing of the teams before the Super 14 competition, letting them know that this particular law would be policed more strictly going forward," he said.

In contrast, IRB chief Paddy O'Brien, a New Zealander, informed Ireland and Wales of the concentration on this area two matches into the five-round Six Nations tournament.

"The issue we had was that it (the pre- tournament brief) wasn't done here. It makes it more difficult," he said. As one South African referee, Craig Joubert, steps away from Croke Park, another, Jonathan Kaplan, walks straight into a heated debate over the insensitivity of the IRB towards the Six Nations.

It could be seen as an after-thought by those greatly affected once the best interests of the SANZAR (South Africa, New Zealand and Australia) countries have been served.

It is not just the timing of the decision from the IRB that has Ireland worried for the future of the game. The technicality of the 'emphasis' means it is much more difficult to poach the ball.

"The longer-term issue is how the game will turn out. If you bring it to its full extent, you will have a situation where you can't get the ball off the opposition. It is going to be very difficult to have a proper contest at the breakdown," warned McNaughton.

Ireland assistant coach Alan Gaffney, the resident southern hemisphere expert, is worried rugby union could be moving down a path towards rugby league.

"That is the comment being made. It is the first reaction, that it is heading down that path," said Gaffney.

"Maybe, perceived by some in officialdom, (that) it is more entertaining for putting bums on seats.

"We all know that the crowd figures in Australia haven't been particularly strong in recent years. Others may say it suits individual teams and that would be the case for sure."

Australian Rugby Union chief executive John O'Neill is often seen as the catalyst for change behind many of the pro-SANZAR decisions taken by the IRB in an ongoing war with the Australian Rugby League for the hearts and minds of supporters and viewers.

"He has his own thoughts. Whether it is for the benefit of Australian rugby or for rugby (overall), I don't know," said Gaffney.

Former Wallaby assistant coach Gaffney is concerned with the impact on the game from the knock-on effect of making changes that could devalue the integrity of the sport.

"We just want a fair contest at the breakdown, where both parties have equal rights to the ball. At the present, time it is weighted very heavily in favour of the attacking side," he said.

"That is not necessarily a great thing for rugby. You may see more tries scored over time. But is that what necessarily makes a great game of rugby? I don't know."

One of the key ingredients to any great game is having something tangible to play for and Gaffney sees this factor at work.

"You can't devalue the Triple Crown. There were only five won over a very long period of time until the last 10 years or so. We are very focused on the fact that we would love to win that again."

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