In football they're called a lottery, they're called cruel, nerve-wracking and unsatisfactory. They're also called exciting, nail-biting and dramatic. Penalty shootouts. Neutral fans love them, partisan fans hate them, and the only thing that's certain is that they'll be controversial. In rugby however, they're just plain wrong.
Now, as a Man U fan, I've been party to a fair few unpleasant penalty shootouts over the last 12 months, there was John Terry's hilarious slip in Moscow last May, and there was the Everton FA cup loss last month. Both were unpleasant in their own way, but they didn't have a patch on the Blues v Leicester Heineken Cup Semi Final on Sunday.
I'm glad to say it was my first rugby penalty shootout, and if I'm not mistaken, it's the first ever. Well thank God for that, because even as a semi-neutral, it was one of the most unpleasant and unnecessary things I've ever witnessed in sport. In football, beating the keeper from 12 yards out isn't easy, but every single player on the field is skilled with ball at feet and should be able to make a fist of converting it.
In rugby, squeezing it over the posts from 22 metres out with an oval ball is hard enough for a fly-half after 100 minutes of brutal, body-destroying rugby, and they're supposed to be good at it. To ask a forward, a player who will maybe connect foot with ball a few times a season, to line up a place kick and stroke it over is not just absurd, and against the spirit of the game – it's cruel.
It's cruel because it takes the unsung heroes of rugby – the grafters, the fatties, the teak-hard bastards at the base of the ruck – and it makes them into villains. In no more horrific way could this have been shown than by Martyn Williams missing the kick that sent Cardiff out on Sunday. Martyn is a hero, a legend, a nice chap. But more than that, he is one of the greatest Welsh players of all time, the best seven in the Northern Hemisphere and a truly one-off player who typifies everything that's great about rugby.
Apparently he was inconsolable after the game, and it's unusual things like this that can really have an impact on your belief, your desire. From what he's saying, it seems that he's started to come to terms with it, and bloody good for him, and with a man like Martyn, I'm sure he won't suffer any long-term effects from it.
But it shouldn't have happened, and it should never happen again. It's the result of not only a lack of thought and intelligence on the part of the ERC, but of a needless desire to be like football, to distil rugby into something it's not – an individual's moment. Rugby isn't a team game, it's about 15 versus 15, not one player. Despite the increasingly glamorous image of the game, that's what it should be and what it will always be.
So what to do about it? Well, I have a few thoughts, and I'm pleased to hear that the ERC is prepared to review it. Talk of 'golden goal' type affairs have been mooted and that's probably better, but I have another idea...
My inspiration comes from college football in America, and in particular, the incredible climax to the Boise State v Oklahoma Fiesta Bowl game in 2007. At the end of the game, the scores were tied and overtime was imminent. But rather than the boring NFL rules where it's just the first team to score, each team would have be given a series of possessions in the Red Zone. They had four downs to score, the team going first could settle for a field goal if need be, but the team going second only had to match it to keep pace, or score a TD to win it.
It was incredibly tense, and will go down as one of the most brilliant moments of sporting excitement I've ever seen. As the video below shows, the winning 2-point conversion play was an incredible combination of ingenuity and team effort. And that's why it was great. It was a team effort. No scapegoats, no individual heartbreak. The team played the game, and the team won it. Brilliant.
So how does this apply to rugby? Well here's my thinking. After extra time is over, each team gets a five-metre scrum in front of the posts, and have 1:30 to score. Once the time is up, the play stops, end of. The teams can try to ferret the ball in, they can ship it out to the backs, they can go for the drop goal or they can try and win a kickable penalty. If the ball goes into touch, goes dead, or is turned over, it's the other team's turn. Teams would be forced to do what they do best – play rugby. The search for a game-tying try would be desperate, touchline penalties or conversions would be heartbreakingly tense.
But it would still be rugby. It would still be players playing the way they are supposed to, not being thrown in at the deep end of some ridiculous artificial shootout.
Of course, they'll never go for it, they'd say it was too radical, too gimmicky, too hard to implement. But let's not forget that we've just come through a season where one of the oldest elements of the game, the driving maul, was essentially jettisoned for the sake of 'entertainment'. So I ask you, why the hell not?