Rugby Union is dead, apparently.

Paul Rees, a man unique among rugby correspondents in that he doesn't seem to like rugby much, is today once again lamenting the death of the game.  Move along everyone, nothing to see here but the chalked outline of William Webb Ellis…

His argument is valid enough on at least some of the Guinness Premiership numbers: there are half as many tries this year as there were at the same time in 2007-8, and 2.6 and 4.7 tries per match respectively; but less convincing on others, the comparison of drops and pens between the same years are not that different.

To be fair to Paul the Misery, he is not the only one wringing his hands about the state of the game, with issues being brought up about player bulk, lack of creativity and excessive kicking coming from all sides since the summer.  Many are blaming the rules, but is it entirely justified?  I'm not sure.

In the midst of many games that have admittedly been utter dreck this autumn, there have been some corkers; Leicester vs Ospreys, most Northampton matches, France vs SA, Ireland vs Aus, even Wales vs Arg showed some class (I'm sure you could name others).  Surely, if it was all the fault of the rules then no games would be any good? 

It cannot be denied that the new protocols at the breakdown have caused problems, but the fact still remains that if you get enough people to the breakdown you will still win the ball just as before.  It has always been the case that no player should take contact when isolated and while the protocols have made this more important this should not be an impossible obstacle for coaches to overcome.  Instead of whining about it, get your players operating in tighter units, look at using pods – mostly simply accept the fact that for years it was piss-easy to recycle your own possession and now you are being asked to earn your money.  Likewise, the players should look at the themselves and trust their ability rather than taking the coward's route with the boot.

Rees' analysis also makes the mistake of focusing on the Guinnes Premiership, falling into the common trap of believing that the English domestic league or England national team is somehow the appropriate laboratory sample to use in the diagnosis of the health of world rugby.  It is not.  The Premiership is suffering from a combination of organised defences and a particular crop of players who are a bit on the creatively mediocre side.  Funnily enough, teams that have creative players – Saints and Irish for example –  are creating things; teams which do not are not - what a miracle, eh?

6 comments

Lee, I’m glad you had your last para in there, pointing out the usual flaw with this sort of hack journalism, the flaw that a crappy English league/national side does not mean rugby is broken. It means English rugby is broken. Pasting my comms here from the previous entry, as they seem more relevant to this discussion->

The difficulty in blaming the rules, or the current coaching of defences, is that it has been possible to see some great rugby this autumn. France v SA was a breathless, exciting game. Wales v Arg was a pretty open game, Arg showed they do have some running rugby ambitions. Ire v Aus was a great game. Even Sco v Aus was a bit of an old style defend-or-die classic that reminded me of Scotland in the nineties. I don’t want to get into England bashing (again), but I can sort of see the IRBs point and think their response is borne out of frustration i.e. it’s a common cycle that when England are winning everything is fine (I don’t remember there being a lot of fuss about dull rugby when England were beating people by a few points, drop goals, forward grind etc. through the nineties and on to winning the world cup), but when England are really, really bad then it seems there is a tendency from pundits, and the public (probably misled by the same pundits) to think there is something wrong with the game, not just something wrong with England.

Interestingly, albeit a little briefly, brought up on The Rugby Club last night. A bit difficult to say that a consensus view was reached, but my general feeling from hearing the arguments was that the IRB have pushed referee’s to errr on the side of the defence at the breakdown, meaning the attacking team don’t get that couple of seconds to play the ball back – instead meaning a penalty / turnover becomes more inevitable. As a result, teams can’t be found getting caught in their own half due to the risk = kick the ball away.

They showed two clips: i) Betsen who had zero chance to play the ball after being tackled, before being pinged for holding on; and, ii) Newcastle v Irish, with Newcastle running and not taking the tackle, that is, off-loading in or before. The former showed the problem in regard to the refereeing of the situation and the latter showed that all that said, it is still possible to run the ball.

What was really telling, however, was the stats they put up on the number of tries scored in the Tri Nations and Premiership. Over the past 3 seasons they’d basically halved. Hence the issue of where does the problem lie.

No simple answer, although some ambition on the part of coaches and a change in emphasis at the breakdown on the attacking team seem to be two parts of the solution.

Most of the not releasing the ball pens I have seen, while frustrating, have been fair enough. The refs are tougher on it now, but the fact is that it is the rules.

I’d agree – most of the not releasing penalties you see given look fair enough.

In addition to the rules and their interpretation, it’s interesting to note how the improvement in players breakdown skills has greatly reduced the tolerances in which the referee can employ his interpretation.

For all that the governance of the tackle area has changed, the improvement in the ability of players (irrespective of position) to arrive at the tackle area, plant, jackal and withstand attempts to clear them out, has contributed to the rules and protocols in making it much harder for the referee to allow either side much leeway.

I’m not suggesting this is something that ought (or even can) be legislated against, but I consequently find myself agreeing with Lee insofar as the same adages still stand – don’t get isolated, make sure you take contact with support presence. Rules and interpretations, in conjunction with player skill, may have made this more of an imperative, but the fundamentals remain.

Rugby’s a game in a state of continual development, and given time, it’s likely that coaching and practice will adjust, and attacking teams will become savvier at managing the contact. The breakdown tolerances might remain smaller, but slack will be found elsewhere to facilitate better retention by attacking sides. Since turning professional, Rugby has seen any number of fads come and go (including excessive kicking), and most have passed without the need for major tinkering. Not all aspects of the game develop at the same pace, and the status quo is thus permanent flux.

So what’s my point? For all the hand-wringing about the rules, it might just be a phase. Give it 12 months and the All Blacks could well have cracked it!

Two other quite possibly hair-brained observations before I forget…

a) Anyone else notice how good the Southern Hemisphere sides are at managing their body positions post-contact? They always seem to be placed to lay the ball back clearly away from the body by the time they go to ground.

b) How liberally interpreted is the ‘not-held’ rule? Some tackles look an awful lot like tackles to me (knees, ground, stopped, held etc.), yet the tackle player somehow contrives to get back to his feet and carry on running. Have I missed a rule change?!

Comments are closed.