Over-regulation, under-refereeing, over-coaching. Plenty of blame to go around, no sign of a solution.
Without a doubt the time I enjoyed playing rugby the most was for the school U15Cs.
Although the sport was virtually a religion at the place, the pressures associated with history and tradition didn't extend beyond the Bs so the teams below that level could simply enjoy the game for what it was without worrying too much about winning.
But that's the thing...our U15Cs that year WERE winning, week in, week out.
It was a great group of lads; we had the bare minimum of two training sessions a week plus a match at weekends. We even had a competition to look forward to after Christmas. And for the first weeks of the school term, we beat all before us and thoroughly enjoyed every minute.
I was a loose head prop, and had been since I was old enough to be in a scrum. My instructions were simple...don't ever, ever so much as consider touching the ball. Should you see it, drive over it. If by some fluke it should end up in your hands, either pass it or go to ground and leave your teammates sort it out for you.
But when your team is so successful you start to get ideas above your station. I remember one match when I approached a maul that had formed around a player from opposite teams grappling for the ball. I knew I was supposed to just put my head down and drive the maul forward as best as I could. Yet instead I chose to get in on the grappling action.
After a bit of struggle I could tell the ball was coming loose. I looked around and there was my scrum half, probably wondering what the hell I thought I was doing.
My cry of “Come here, I have it! I have it!” was met with a look that clearly said “he doesn't have it” so once the ball was ripped free I saw no other option than to run around the maul and bring it as far as I could. Of course this was the last thing my team-mates would have expected me to do at that point so although I got to within a few yards of the try-line there was no support to speak of.
Luckily their full back who tried to clear managed to kick the ball against one of his own players and by then the support had arrived and one of our backs was able to pounce on the ball for a try. It was your classic example of the forwards doing the grunt work and the backs taking the glory, but I didn't mind, in fact I was well chuffed.
Now...at this point my story will change slightly when I tell it to my grandchildren. Most likely they'll be told that particular incident was the start of my meteoric rise to the Junior Cup team and but for a constant recurring leg injury I could have played for Ireland one day.
Truth be told, the injury was true, but the meteoric-ness of the rise, not so much. Still, I was one of about half a dozen C team players who got the call-up to the Bs before Christmas, and this in itself was a pretty big deal for us at the time.
A big deal, that is, until we got a load of the training regime. Nowadays in the professional game it seems that naming your second team is all the rage. The Irish Wolfhounds, the England Saxons, the Ulster Ravens, and this season coming, the Connacht Eagles.
At schoolboy level, particularly at one with realistic chances of lifting the Cup, there was only one nickname required for the B's – The Whipping Boys.
I was told of my promotion on the Friday. This meant my first training session would be on the Monday. But not after school. At lunchtime. Yes, at my alma mater we took hour-long lunches, not for the sake of our digestive systems, rather for the sake of some extra rugby practise.
Back at the C's, we had just the one regular coach, who normally had another teacher with him giving him a hand without being totally up on the rules of the game. When we ran out on to the training pitch that first lunchtime, there were that many coaches it seemed as though the adults outnumbered the kids.
Then there followed about twenty minutes of running, running and more running. Nothing like the quick jog around the goalposts we were used to either. I was well bolloxed before we ever got near doing anything to do with rugby. And for a brief moment I felt a sense of relief that we were to break up into forwards and backs as the pack concentrated on scrummaging.
Up to that point, I probably thought the word “scrum” came from some ancient Indian word meaning “safe warm haven” since that's how they were to me at that level. On freezing cold muddy days they were the ideal way to both have a breather and lose the blueness of the skin. I have even known a team-mate or two to deliberately knock the ball on just to get into a scrum, though I of course would never consider doing such a thing myself (ahem).
All I had ever needed to do in those scrums was bind with the hooker, bind with the opposite tight-head and give a bit of a shove. So the first time I set to pack down against the A team scrum this is pretty much what I had in mind.
First thing different I noticed was the fact that a coach was in the ear of their front row before we set the scrum. They were all starters, and clearly we didn't warrant this kind of attention, but we would have expected that. It was when we actually came together that I totally realised that I was now playing with the big boys.
The second the two front rows came together I felt pressure coming from their tight-head's right shoulder. Before I knew what was what, my nose was pressed up against my right knee.
“All right, all right, let's try that again!” said one of the gazillion coaches.
Thank God for that, I thought. Something was seriously wrong there, what was your man the other prop thinking?
Scrum sets again, nose meets knee again. Ah here, clearly your man has to go, I reckoned. I was wrong.
“Pagano, you come out of there.” The guy who was normally the B's prop stood in, and this time, I could see what the A tight-head was doing, yet the scrum stayed up long enough for the ball to be put in.
As a 14-year old I remember feeling pretty stupid at the time. Now, I know I needn’t have done. Nobody ever prepared me for that. In fact, I don't remember ever being told what to do by a coach after the incident, as they were all there exclusively for the firsts. I do remember being better prepared the next time I went up against the A's scrum in training, positioning my legs and being ready to take a quick bind so that the boring in wouldn't affect me.
But I can’t help feeling a heads up for what was going to happen when my head went down wouldn't have hurt anyone. In fact, not getting it could have seriously hurt someone. Yet my point is not so much about the rights and wrongs of schoolboy coaching, since I'm sure this has improved over the years.
My point is that even in the early 80's, when professionalism in rugby union was nary a twinkle in the eye, the front row contact at the scrum was an issue all the way down to teenage level.
So that leads me to believe that for every law the powers that be come up with to “fix it”, there will be hundreds of coaches shouting ways to get around them into prop's ears all over the world. Now granted, the whole “Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage” thing was ludicrous, especially when the ref added an actual pause both before and after the word “pause”.
But unless you want to make scrums as meaningless as they are in rugby league, forwards have to be allowed to compete, and this includes the hit. Once it's merely a competition for position rather than actual early shoving, I see no reason to change it.
Of course there are other areas the scrums are being misused, and often it is simply a case of inconsistent refereeing. One day Nigel Owens sends opposing props to the bin, another Roman Poite shows just the one a yellow for the same offense (yeah maybe I am still a tad bitter from the Pro12 final, sue me!). Then just last Saturday at Newlands I saw the Stormers front row blatantly pop up to stop the Sharks shoving them any further yet the referee did nothing.
So this elephant in the room is only going to get bigger, and if the pros can't sort it, what hope the latest crop of 15-year-olds? Trust me, I have no idea what the answer is, but I do have some idea that merely saying “Crouch, Touch, Set” isn't going to cure all ills.
Much like the breakdown, it's enforcing the existing laws correctly that's required more than changing them. To give the refs a bit of slack, they can only ever be in one place at a time, but with the top level rugby being beamed all over the world it gets more frustrating every time to see matches won by key moments when obvious no-nos gained the advantage.
All we can do I suppose is see how the new scrum call affects the game. Or indeed see how the Adam Jones' and Cian Healys of this world get around them. One thing is for sure, they'll be well prepared for it when the new season starts after hours and hours of practise against their well-coached reserves.
By the way...to complete the story from my U15s season, I stayed with the Bs to the end of the campaign, and we won our cup though I was just a sub in the final at Donnybrook. I got on for the last ten minutes and didn't have a single scrum to worry about. The ball did fall into my arms once, but I dutifully shovelled a pass to the nearest back as I had been told. Meanwhile the C's, having had the guts of their team ripped out at mid-season, went out of their league at the semifinal stage. JLP