Much debate since the end of the World Cup has centred around the tight nature of the key games and how to encourage teams to strive for tries. This is in response to the fact that one of the finalists, England, managed to cross the whitewash only once in their 3 knockout matches, and to the prominence of the kicking game among all four semi-finalists.
Forget that the latter stages saw a return to rugby’s roots as international rugby rediscovered the passion and titanic physicality which has been lacking for some years. We want tries, plenty of them; set pieces which just get the game going again; breakdowns which form merely the quickest punctuation mark among the breakneck speed of a game loaded towards attack.
Sport is at its best when there is an even battle in progress. A balance between bat and ball is preferable to a 10 runs an over batting fest in cricket; server and returner going head to head in tennis is more compelling than a torrent of aces; golfers having to fight for every inch makes for more edifying viewing than persistent 63s and 64s on a course that does not provide a test. There is something irresistible about the clash of defence and attack in rugby where a match can be turned by a moment of magical attacking flair or an heroic defensive hit. The winning of a tight game by a well-earned piece of team or individual brilliance, or even just sheer blood and guts; it is surely towards this that all those with rugby’s best interests at heart must be working.
Criticism has centred on the approach of teams in the latter stages of the tournament. But in the crucial games, teams make fewer errors as they take fewer risks, therefore fewer tries are scored. This is human nature and a fact of many sports – how often does the football World Cup, or the FA Cup serve up a rubbish final? Regularly. This is because stifling pressure breeds caution, but nobody calls for a change in the rules. Brazil often play the best football, but they do not demand an overhaul when they get knocked out.
The game of rugby, as with many sports, goes in cycles. Sometimes defence rules over attack, sometimes attack over defence; the same applies to football, or to bat and ball in cricket. At the moment defences are on top in rugby. As shown in the key knockout matches, games were decided by 3 things; the kicking battle, the lineout area and the error count. South Africa won all of these convincingly in the final. The lineout has always been important but the centrality of the other two areas to the outcome of a game has grown even further. This was clear in the tactics of the most successful teams.
The most striking tactical development in the World Cup was the fact that territory has usurped possession as the most important currency. Teams feared opposition goalkickers, and trusted their own defences to such an extent that they were prepared to let the opposition have the ball as long as it was not in a dangerous area. They feared that if they ran from deep they would get isolated, concede a penalty and inevitably, 3 points. They also trusted their defences to harass their opponents into errors upon which they could capitalise. South Africa carried out this formula with more efficiency than anyone else and took home the trophy. Their peerless kicking game set up position for Montgomery to slot the penalties. Matfield reigned supreme at the lineout and they punished errors ruthlessly.
South Africa’s formula was the same as England’s, and to an extent to all the leading nations. We focus upon the supposed lack of ambition of the Northern Hemisphere teams but in terms of creating opportunities through imaginative use of primary possession, their Southern counterparts are not much better. The difference between the likes of South Africa and New Zealand compared to England and Laporte’s France is their attitude when they succeed in harrying their opponents into errors. When England turn over opposition ball, they regard it as relief and kick the ball to safety. South Africa and New Zealand regard it as opportunity. Back in 2005, it was found that in the Tri Nations and the Lions tour combined, over half of New Zealand’s tries came when the other team had won primary possession. In their World Cup matches against really major opponents (only England and Argentina in truth), South Africa scored 7 tries, all of which came from opposition errors.
The tries which New Zealand and South Africa score on the counter attack are wonderful to watch and bring pleasure because they have been truly earned by, if you’ll excuse the Americanism, offensive defence. Skill levels among the backs of Australia and New Zealand are clearly superior to England’s but it is not really the paucity of their back play which leads the English to struggle to cross the whitewash. It is their attitude when they earn the most dangerous attacking weapon in the game – turnover ball.
Evidence of this attitude has been laid bare by Lawrence Dallaglio’s comments on Brian Ashton in his autobiography. Without getting into the rights and wrongs of whether he should have made the comments at all, there was one statement which stood out as worrying for England rugby supporters, and enlightening for all those disappointed by their lack of ambition in attack. Ashton has a reputation for empowering the players to think for themselves. Dallaglio countered that players did not know what they were supposed to be doing and like to be told what their gameplan is and precisely how they are supposed to play.
Now it is true that a side needs a structure and a strategy but the implication of Dallaglio’s comments is that there was no appetite among the players to take up the challenge thrown down by Ashton. Mike Catt commented that before the South Africa pool match, England had no back moves because Ashton had not told them any. Sorry Mike, but how many caps have you got? One would have hoped that somewhere down the line you might have picked up a few little backs moves to use.
This is symptomatic of the fact that there is an absence of vision in English rugby, of players thinking for themselves. Bernard Laporte also attempted to crush original thinking among his French side who ended up as turgid as anyone during the tournament. This inability to play ‘heads-up’ rugby manifested itself most clearly on turnover ball when it is so important for players to play what is in front of them. What needs to change then is that coaches must encourage players (who must in turn be willing) to think for themselves, play what they see in front of them and be eager to grasp any opportunity that presents itself. They must then commit 100% to that attack with support players pouring through as the All Blacks do. Once England and France rediscover the ability to do this then the way they play the game will be no different to South Africa and New Zealand. It is a change in mindset then, not laws which will help to unlock the defensive stranglehold.
The way the current laws are interpreted and applied is also a matter for discussion. Regularly we see defenders flopping over the tackled player with no real intention of stealing the ball. Instead they are searching for the penalty and very often they succeed. This enables defences to string out across the pitch and reorganise because they know that it only takes one defender to force the turnover or to slow possession down. Space is then reduced for the attacking side. Stricter application of the current laws at the breakdown would be desirable, including ensuring that a defender attempting a turnover is supporting his own weight rather than leaning on the prostrate attacker. But that does not necessarily constitute a wholesale change to rugby as a sport.
Not so long ago many were complaining that the Super 14 (then the Super 12) was akin to basketball. Games were settled by inept defences who leaked 7 tries but only managed to score 6. Tries were not scored through attacking brilliance, but because it was almost harder not to score them than to score them. Changing the laws to loosen the game up is attempting to create tries for the sake of tries. The onus should be on players and coaches to try to find ways of penetrating strong defences from all phases of the game. Defences are so disciplined now at the highest level that even penalty goals are beginning to dry up (scorelines of 28-21 have been replaced by 15-6, despite the improvement in goalkicking). Teams will have to strive to score tries again and the ball is very much in the court of attacking coaches. But let them figure it out for themselves instead of changing the game until it is unrecognisable as the ultimate physical team sport.
There are many ways to play the game and teams should not necessarily be penalised for playing to their strengths. Rugby is a multidimensional game which incorporates so many contrasting and complimentary aspects and the moment the laws are changed to provide a prescriptive way of playing is the moment the game loses much of what makes it so great. Please do not let the game compromise itself in order to compete with other sports. If people do not like rugby, let them watch football, do not change rugby to suit them.
By Stuart Peel