Brian Dick: Longer season will help us get used to new rugby rules
Brian Dick prepares for the first whistle of a long, long rugby season.
August? For the love of all things holy and oval, August. Is a season of impending uncertainty not sufficiently daunting that we don’t have to have it extended into a tenth month. September to May, the natural gestation period of the regular rugby-based controversy, not long enough anymore?
No, hang on a minute. There’s the British Lions this season too. They won’t get home from South Africa until the middle of next July. That’s 11 months of unrelenting tension and increasing desperation.
In fact this season has started so early the last one has barely finished and will end so late the next one will have already started, I think.
At least the rules haven’t changed and we all know where we stand as regards the structure. Ha, ha.
Of course the rules have changed. The Experimental Law Variations, or ELVs as those in the know call them, are upon us and many are predicting Armageddon, or at least a game where it is better to play without the ball than with.
For those who watch National One matches on a regular basis it might quite hard to tell the difference. Billesley Common on a wet, windy December day is just about the last place you’d want anything inflated and ovoid.
In the couple of games I’ve seen so far, pre-season garden parties admittedly, things don’t seem massively altered. There I was expecting more free kicks than I received on my first birthday as a secondary school pupil, only to see about the same number of straight arm penalties as normal.
The main change that struck me was referees insisting players stay on their feet at the breakdown. No one can argue with the wisdom behind that nor indeed the need for their team to find itself a nose over the ball openside. The first few weeks could be Seven Heaven.
I’m not particularly uptight about the changes over kicking to touch either. It’ll be interesting to see sides try to work their way from the 22.
What does worry me, however, is the confusion surrounding the structure for 2009-10. Five First Division sides could be relegated, the fifth either straight down or via a play-off with the winner of National Two, but no-one’s saying anything concrete yet.
With the RFU publicly silent on the issue, FDR chairman Geoff Irvine issued a statement yesterday confirming the status quo but including a rather important rider.
“Unless the RFU decides otherwise, arrangements for promotion and relegation will be as for season 2007-08,” said Irvine.
It was a statement that said nothing. You could do anything in rugby union, even wipe out several hundred thousand pounds worth of debt, unless the RFU decides otherwise.
What the RFU does want, though, is a 12-team National One and they want it as soon as is possible. They work on the theory that one painful surgery beats death by a thousand cuts.
If I had to put money on the outcome I’d predict four down automatically and the National Two champions playing off with whoever finishes 12th. Then see the sponsors coming out of the woodwork.
Which means Moseley and Coventry have to equal what they managed last term. Tenth for Ian Smith’s men disguised the fact they won just once at home in eight months. Outstanding victories over Cornish Pirates and Esher massaged that figure.
Had the other variables remained constant Moseley would have been well placed to improve on that. They own their own pack, have a more flexible deal with Gloucester, and – in Richard Vasey – finally have a first rate fly half.
However, nothing stands still in this sport and even more clubs have gone full time. Exeter have more men at their disposal than Napoleon had, Leeds have a £1 million parachute payment, Cornish Pirates have one more year of Dickie Evans’ money to make it pay, and Doncaster are gliding steadily onwards.
London Welsh have turned professional and Bedford have enhanced their squad beyond recognition. Moseley will have to run faster just to keep up.
That is to say nothing of poor Coventry. A repeat of last season’s ninth would be a Herculean achievement given the off-field strife they have endured. As a club they might have brought it on themselves, but their supporters deserve huge credit for rallying around when the union had pulled the plug.
There is no guarantee they’ll make it through the season, their first target should be the traditional Boxing Day clash with Moseley and beyond that a finish somewhere inside the top dozen.
Comfortingly there are enough have-nots to give both clubs hope. Newbury will definitely go down whether as part of a two or a complement of five. Promoted sides Manchester and Otley will find FDR a more difficult prospect than the one they left, and Sedgley Park and Esher are never too far away from the danger zone.
And the wonderful thing? We’ve only got to wait the best part of a year to find out.