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New rules will ruin any chance Italy had of keeping up with big boys.

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How often has this column banged on about the need for more coaching loyalty and calm from the unions and less creation of scapegoats? A laudable concept indeed, except in a fascinating first weekend of Six Nations the three teams to disappoint were the ones who retained their coaches after the World Cup. The new brooms swept clean last weekend, at least in terms of performance if not results.

But there is already a growing swell of premature sympathy for Italy. Nick Mallet has played to the limited strengths in his Italian squad, and had David Bortolussi found his angles from the tee then the Azzurri might have caused Ireland more than just a scare.

Yet next year, just as the Italians are beginning to impose their true identity as a rugged team based around a snarling lumpy pack of forwards, new laws likely to come into force are set to eviscerate their threat and potentially set them back a good three or four years.

Six times on Saturday, Italy's mean machine took line-out balls or short pop passes, and tore into the Irish pack, driving them backwards more than ten metres. It was an unstoppable and exhilarating display. But next year, an Irishman bound into that maul in defence would - at considerable risk to life and limb - be able simply to pull the tide of blue shirts to the floor and halt its momentum.

Talking to senior figures in refereeing circles reveals a palpable lack of either sympathy or lament at the removal of the driving maul from the game. The mantra runs that a deliberate collapse of a driving maul is going to be tightly regulated, i.e. a player cannot just run in at the legs and trip it up, and entry to the side will be scrutinised. And it is up to the attacking team to recycle the ball speedily to the forward at the back of the drive, so that when the maul does go down, he is able to peel off and keep going.

But it does miss the point a bit. It is rather difficult to get the eight bodies in the right place at the right time and wind up that forward momentum, but when it does work, it is a powerful weapon. It yielded Italy's try, and one of their penalties - eight of their points.

It seems the new laws will heavily favour teams with artists behind the scrum, not those whose tactics centre around up-the-jumper frustration of more talented opposition. Winning ugly is on the way to being marginalised. Rolling mauls will be relegated to the ranks of fond memories.

Meanwhile, teams like Italy and Georgia are about to suffer greatly while they sift through their limited resources for more talented backs. What kind of sport is it where the administrators change the rules to ensure lesser teams cannot neutralise the bigger teams to achieve their improbable and courageous goals? Rugby suffers few enough upsets as it is, soon there may be none at all.

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Publication:7 Days (Dubai, United Arab Emirates)
Date:Feb 7, 2008
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