By David Wilkinson
Unlike Soccer the 15-man game constantly changes, with law changes from World Rugby being applied on a regular basis. The World Rugby law-makers are a body of coaches, players, match officials, medics and law specialists with an overriding remit to make the game as safe as possible, whilst keeping the ball in play as long possible, as well as other issues that arise.
The game being played today, these last two weekends, in particular, is quite different from the game structure of say five years ago. Coaches have devised structures and styles of play, within the current laws, to maximise the chance of winning and winning with 5 league points (4 tries) where possible. There are no bonus points available for attractive play and given the empty stadia, since May, no benefit to be gained by supporters roaring players on from the terraces. Some of the seemingly negative tactics employed in the majority of games has become a talking point within the media and rugby followers alike, throughout the country.
England’s Head Coach, Eddie Jones, had no qualms about this talking to the media recently: “The teams that kick the most win games”. Jones doesn’t always speak the truth but England’s tactics are plain to see. Whilst their kicking game is targeted to create opportunities further up-field, the reality is they are giving the ball away, vis-a-vis turning defence into defence. A tactical concept that would turn many heads and one might wonder where the logic is; again from Eddie Jones: “It’s easier (safer) to defend than it is to attack”. It’s a tactic that is employable and ultimately advantageous if you have a dynamic and well-drilled side; and the England players are probably some of the best in the world at soaking up the defence, making dominant tackles and forcing mistakes. The recent contest for England against Ireland in the Autumn Nations Cup is a case in point: the possession statics were massively in favour of Ireland, yet England was able to win at a canter without ever really being threatened. Taking a look at the attacking tactics, again from Eddie Jones: “We still want to play heads-up rugby, and I’ve told them if they think it’s on to go for it”. Which was great to hear, and see in action, with Johnny May’s incredible try against Ireland. However what Eddie doesn’t want to see is his players running back into a packed defence; the risks are too high for their structured game: lost ball in contact, turnover conceded or a penalty given away. Macclesfield Head Coach, Andy Appleyard agreed with the risks: “Attacking play is full of risks, passing and catching the rugby ball is a very skilful process in high-speed attack, mistakes can easily happen, a knock-on, dropped ball, interception, etcetera; in contrast, defence is much more structured and requires far less skills”.
The underlying kicking and defensive strategy works for England because they have the calibre of players and coaching staff to see it carried out to perfection on the field of play, but spin the strategy out into the Premiership, and in a lot of cases it just doesn’t work. What we can be left with is games of kicking ping-pong that don’t really get anywhere. Newcastle versus Sale Sharks on Friday night was a case in point, the commentators apologising for the poor quality of rugby being shown; 74 times possession was kicked away in what was a turgid affair, ironically the highlight being a deft chip-kick on the 79” minute. Of course, there is one Premiership team that has mastered the strategy with their dominant pack; Exeter are almost unstoppable once they get close to the line and they are very patient at getting there: defend, soak-up the pressure, win a penalty, kick to the corner, and the rest is almost academic. Saturday’s match-up with local rivals Bath demonstrated just how clinical they could be, but there was nothing exciting about it; turgid, clinical winning-rugby; unless you’re an Exeter fan!
However, Saturday’s rugby was not all doom and gloom, a shining beacon in the wintery greyness was Harlequins performance against Northampton; six tries for but then four against, in a 49-29 win. A very exciting loose game, but as the post-match Pundits pointed out, Harlequins would be unlikely to be successful playing this style of rugby against a lot of other teams in the Premiership. One hopes that they will try and stick to their free-flowing style rather than ‘ping-pong’ risk aversion.
So just how is the game going to develop? Speaking to Welsh referee Huw Jenkins after the Wales v England match he had this to say: “All teams know that kicking from deep is a low-risk but a boring consequence of giving the defenders a bit more of a sniff at the breakdown; we have recently seen that there’s a lot of dark-arts ‘shepherding’ of kick chasers going on; referees are also working hard to stop offside teammates sneakily advancing, you could see Nigel Owens working hard at it yesterday; lineout catch & drive is obviously so difficult to stop if executed well by a big pack. I think that counterattacking from turnovers will remain the most exciting facet of play. In the future expect scrums to be minimised; stand-up tackles, especially ‘choke’ penalised more, and mauls outside the opposing 22 to be ended early”.
Some interesting ideas and expectations are undoubtedly in the air. It is quite possible that some of these are emanating from World Rugby’s proposals back in May, that were put to the Unions to make the game more Covid safe in the return to elite rugby. The suggestions were proposed as being temporary and not obligatory, but most saw them as the thin-end- of-the-wedge to a game that had far less extended periods of contact. As a consequence, they were rejected wholesale.
These are some of the changes that World Rugby wanted to trial: Removing scrum resets; taking away the option of a scrum for a penalty, a free-kick, or when an attacker is held-up in-goal; reinforcing high tackle guidelines to reduce face-to-face contact and the introduction of an “orange card” for potential red-card offences, the player being removed while the TMO checks the offence; removing the choke tackle, with referees calling a “tackle” rather than a “maul”; awarding a free-kick rather than a scrum for when a team fails to “use it” at a scrum, ruck, or maul, and speeding up this process to 3 seconds rather than 5; and restricting the number of players who can join a maul and the time spent in the maul. Some of these will undoubtedly still be high on World Rugby’s ‘To be Changed’ list.
And what of the community game; as I write the Clubs have just heard that the government has approved the RFU’s submission to a return to 15-a-side contact rugby, with some adaptations. The staggered plan for ‘Return to Rugby’ is back on track as of Wednesday with contact training, followed by the adapted full-contact game being played with the commencement of local leagues. The exact format is now being confirmed, one assumes there will need to be a lag period for players and referees to learn how to play within the new adapted laws before the leagues actually commence. In essence, there will be no set scrums or mauls and the chances are that there will be some changes to the structure of the ruck, to minimise the players involved and the time spent at ruck-time. It’s also likely that the choke tackle will be called: “tackle made” by the referee with opposition players releasing the player immediately. Andy Appleyard had concerns how the game would restart instead of scrums: “We’ve been told that it will be a tap back, with players two metres apart, but I can see it being very difficult to referee”. It now looks like play will be restarted with a free-kick. Another concern is that the adapted game will favour the backs and back-row forwards, with worries that we may lose Props to the game during this period. It is going to take some careful planning and adjudication to ensure that teams field front five players in their squads. The good news, following on from the government’s latest announcements, is that the Priory Park Stand and ground will be open to supporters once we do restart, albeit with a reduced capacity in the Stand.
Fast forward to the new season of September 2021and what will the game look like at the community level? Teams will have played 4 months of the adapted game’s laws, a fast-flowing format of what we are used to seeing. Once full-contact rugby has resumed with scrums and mauls a lot of the fast-flowing game is bound to flow over into a style of play that is quite different to the game that was being played in March 2020. Hopefully, World Rugby will use this time to also bring in some of the changes that they had originally proposed when coming out of the first lockdown; after all, everyone wants to watch and play the tough game of rugby in the safest and most enjoyable way possible – change is good (mostly).