This week’s theblitzdefence article It’s Grim Up North was fairly strident in bemoaning the general quality of rugby we have seen in this year’s 6 Nations tournament with particular focus on the anti-rugby tactics of Wales and Ireland. Things were looking pretty turgid; we were heading towards a record low number of tries, the box kick had dominated events and even Steve Hansen chipped in to decry the negative approach to modern rugby.
What a difference a week makes. Instead of the conservative, structured, slow paced games we have been served up to date yesterday’s rugby burst in to life with invention, pace and three games that will live long in the memory.
Wales, Ireland and England all knew that they had to score tries and to score tries you need to have a positive mindset fused with balanced risk taking. These three teams went out with the approach of taking the initiative from the first whistle rather than the more prevalent approach in modern rugby to press and squeeze the opposition to force them to make mistakes.
For a long time commentators in the northern hemisphere have pointed to a number of factors which explained why rugby was turning in to a predictable, boring sport. The rules are too complicated, there isn’t enough space on the pitch and the weather conspires to make ball handling difficult are some of the more popular theories but anyone who has watched Super Rugby or Tri (now Quad) Nations rugby will have known that these theories don’t hold much water.
Southern hemisphere rugby has long been a very different game to watch when compared to northern hemisphere rugby – it is faster, more points are scored and the skill levels on show are far superior to anything the north has had to offer. And yet they function under the same laws on a same size pitch with the same number of players as we do in the north.
The two main differences which explain the divergence in the games are the mindset and the way the game is refereed.
Southern hemisphere referees have a more laissez faire approach to the laws of the game, particularly at the ruck and scrum. It is no coincidence that yesterday’s games were refereed by Pollock from New Zealand and perhaps the two northern hemisphere referees with the most southern hemisphere approach to the game – Jerome Garces and Nigel Owens.
The second reason is that southern hemisphere rugby has been characterised by a willingness to take risks and be positive in the belief that they will be rewarded for this ambition. In the south the aim is usually to keep the ball alive by off loading or passing before contact. Teams are also willing to take risks and the referees tend to favour those teams that are more willing to try and play positive rugby.
In yesterday’s Ireland – Scotland game you could see the positive ambition from Ireland from the first whistle as they were willing to try and run the ball from deep to test the Scottish defence. Similarly in the Wales game as the second half wore on Wales began to offload in contact and attack from deep which are tactics we have rarely seen from Wales for the last few years.
We saw more creative and ambitious play in three games yesterday than the whole of the last two 6 Nations. Offloads, passes to players in space, attacking from depth, support runners…..the long lost skills of old came back in abundance yesterday.
To temper the undoubted skill and positive ambition of the three winning teams we need to say something about the three defeated teams.
This is probably the worst French team for a long, long time. Saint-Andre has somehow managed to dodge the axe to date and but for a World Cup on the near horizon you imagine he would now be searching for a new coaching job. People may point to some flashes of the old France in yesterday’s game but these don’t paper over the fact that this was a twenty point defeat off the back of previous defeats to Ireland and Wales (in Paris).
The 2013 Championship saw France finish in last place and they have finished 4th in 2012, 2014 and now in 2015. A large gap in quality has opened up between France and the triumvirate of Ireland, England and Wales. The cliche of “which France will turn up?” is still quoted but it is no longer valid; France have been very average for several seasons.
We are also seeing a worrying decline in the performances of Italy which seems to mirror the waning success of their domestic Treviso team. In the last couple of seasons Italy have taken a few beatings that bring back memories of the results in their first couple of seasons after their entrance to the 6 Nations. They need to arrest this decline.
Perhaps the most depressing performance of the weekend was Scotland’s. It is over fifteen years now since Scotland had a competitive team at a European level and even with Italy’s concurrent decline there is an argument that Scotland has become the minnow of 6 Nations rugby. More worrying is that Italy still seem to be on an upward trajectory while Scotland are becoming increasingly uncompetitive year on year.
Scottish rugby needs emergency surgery if it is to remain at the top table of European rugby and they are nervously looking over their shoulder at potential challengers coming up from behind rather than focusing on which of the bigger teams they can beat. Yesterday’s performance was abject.
The lasting impact
There are two fundamental positive aspects of the weekend’s rugby that should be enshrined in stone so we don’t forget them.
Firstly, the scoring mechanism of the 6 Nations needs to change to reward those teams that are positive in their intent. This probably means bonus points in some form for tries scored or a defeat within a few points. This should be structured however so that a team which wins all their games will still be crowned champions and that their score can’t be surpassed by a teaming losing a game but picking up more bonus points.
Secondly the northern hemisphere teams should have gained confidence by knowing that a positive approach to rugby allied with appropriate risk taking leads to winning teams. The fear of losing should be banished by the knowledge that ambition can be the best offensive weapon.
If Ireland, England and Wales take this approach in to the World Cup they stand a far better chance of success than repeating the tried (and failed) formula of conservative, risk free rugby.