The 2015 6 Nations started with a bang in Cardiff (read The night Larry King came to the Millennium Stadium) with an impressive pyrotechnic display off the pitch matched by a second half of similar fireworks from England as they overhauled an 8 point half time deficit to take the game away from Wales.
Since then we have witnessed the good (England against Italy, Wales versus Ireland), the bad (France versus Wales) and the downright ugly (Italy versus France). Heading in to the deciding weekend there are potentially four teams that can still win the title, so why aren’t we a bit more excited about the climax?
It’s grim up north
Let’s be brutally honest; in the main professional rugby in the northern hemisphere is pretty boring to watch and this 6 Nations tournament has not been an exception. Yes, there have been flashes of excitement but those games that have caught the imagination have done so not because of the quality of rugby on offer, but because the games are tight and the margins of victory so close.
The number of tries scored in the 6 Nations has gradually come down over the last 15 years in no small part to the improved competitiveness of Italy. The 2013 tournament saw just 37 tries and with one round left to play we have witnessed just 31 tries across 4 rounds of rugby. A new record could be on the cards.
This year, going in to the final round of matches Ireland has scored just two tries against Italy and one against England. They could only cross the line against Wales through a penalty try and they failed to register a try at all against France. This is a startling statistic when you think this Ireland team stands a good chance of winning the title, and yet they do not have the creativity to score tries.
Surely rugby should be a sport that rewards those that are creative, those that are willing to try things, those that want to entertain?
It’s not all about the tries!
With my Super Rugby hat on I would be bemoaning the lack of tries as an indicator that all is not well in northern hemisphere rugby and the dearth of tries is an indicator of the wider problems such as a lack of basic rugby skills, speed of thought and the stifling referring approach. We know however that a game doesn’t need tries to be exciting but what it loses in tries it needs to gain in other areas.
Indeed not that long ago Steve Hansen had the pleasure of watching a few 6 Nations games and commented on the state of rugby:
“And if we don’t address it, then we are going to get very boring rugby matches … there are some things as a sport we have to address, otherwise our game will become a negative sport rather than a positive one.”
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Last weekend’s game between Wales and Ireland certainly couldn’t be faulted for intensity or commitment and there were certainly periods of entertainment but these two teams exemplify northern hemisphere – and perhaps modern rugby in general, in that their game plans are built on anti-rugby.
Anti-rugby is the modern approach to winning games where the emphasis isn’t so much on creating a point scoring opportunity through a positive act but by forcing errors or mistakes from the other team through a highly structured, conservative, low risk game plan which builds on the current interpretations of the maul, scrum and ruck laws.
Let’s look at a few aspects of a successful anti-rugby approach.
Playing without the ball
Wales are the best exponents of this and actively encourage the opposition to attack due to their approach of not kicking the ball out of play when the opportunity arises, usually from a defensive position. The aim is to encourage the receivers to then attack with ball in hand and isolate themselves and concede a penalty, turnover or just a net loss in ground as they are tackled further up the field than where the kick took place.
The back row combination of Falateu, Lydiate and Warburton provides a balanced approach with tacklers and jackalers who are chosen to exploit exactly these types of situations. It is not a positive approach to rugby but is has been proven to be effective against all but the top teams who are more adept at running the ball back.
The 1 or 2 out pass
Ireland had a couple of long attacking passages of play in last Saturday’s game where they clocked up a large number of phases but failed to breach the Welsh defence. One example occurred around the 55 minute mark and is symptomatic of the Irish approach to the game.
Ireland won the ball 16 times at the base of the ruck. Of those 16 pieces of possession the initial receiver took the ball on himself 5 times (so there was no pass), on seven occasions the ball was passed just once from ruck and four times two passes were put together. Not once did Ireland pass the ball three or more times in the phase and there was not even the hint of an offload out of the tackle.
This lack of ambition gives us a clue why Ireland find it so hard to break down defences. It also points to the fact that a lot of teams are relying on the opposition infringing, giving away the penalty and then either taking the 3 points or playing for a maul off a 5 metre scrum. We looked at Ireland’s illegal rolling maul in previous articles and it was this very tactic that finally allowed them to breach the Welsh defence.
Ironically Wayne Barnes stringent approach to the ruck did free up the ball but it meant the defenders were not willing to compete at the break down. This resulted in the attacking team being favoured but the defensive line had usually formed by the time the ball came out from the ruck.
Risk free approach
Modern rugby is very formulaic. If we take a team like Ireland or Wales we can say with a reasonable degree of certainty what the team will do in each area of the pitch. In simple terms in their own half the scrum half tends to box kick, around the defensive 10m and half way line the Garryowen is the weapon of choice and as we near the try line it is one from the rolling maul, cross field kick or pick and go that teams tend to choose.
These tactics have evolved mainly in response to the scrum and ruck interpretations which are so difficult to understand that playing the ball in one’s own half is asking for trouble as a kickable penalty could easily be given against the defending team. Why risk playing rugby in range of the opposition’s place kicker?
Reward positive play
This article isn’t necessarily a criticism of Gatland and Schmidt because they are two good coaches who are providing winning teams for the most part but it is a recognition that everyone involved in rugby – coaches, players, referees need to work together to make rugby entertaining to watch and a game that rewards positive play.
So with the final weekend coming up the rugby purist should probably be supporting an England win as they have brought a fresh, dynamic edge to large parts of the tournament and have arguably played the most positive winning rugby. That’s a difficult statement to make from the land of Rob Andrew and 10 man rugby but this England team under Lancaster is moving in the right direction and they are also good to watch and that can’t be a bad thing for rugby.