Ruggaworld welcome a new member to our family… Benjamin Pegna…Ben currently coaches around the world as a consultant. Amongst teams like London Wasp, London Scottish and England 7’s. Before coaching he played in the UK, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Another year of 6 Nations rugby arrives and another year of me pondering whether I am just getting old and grumpy (affirmative), whether I have just watched too much rugby and I have had enough (possibly), or perhaps, just maybe the game has changed (definitely)?
But then I watch a Super Rugby match (normally a Kiwi team) and my underlying inclination is confirmed that it’s not the game I have fallen out of love with, just the way it is being played in the Northern Hemisphere.
But why is there such a vast chasm between the two hemispheres?
It’s confusing watching rugby in the Northern Hemisphere, whether that be International or Club rugby. Listening to the commentators, a new rugby watcher would believe that one of the founding principles of rugby is Territory. It’s espoused it as if it is THE fundamental principle – akin to one of Sun Tzu’s key Principles from Art of War.
Robot fashion a pundit rolls out the line that ‘x’ lost because: ‘they played in the wrong areas.’ Recapping on the Principles of Rugby Union I am reminded that the commentators other standard go to lines of ‘(Contest) Possession’, ‘Go Forward’, ‘Apply Pressure’ and ‘Score Points’ are all there.
I look again but can’t find ‘Territory’ (or playing in the right areas). I search further and also can’t see ‘Round the Corner’ (Maybe I am looking in the wrong place!)
But there they are, the two remaining Principles that I have been looking for. By the way two of just six Principles so they are pretty important!
‘Provide Support’ and ‘Create Continuity’
So why in the Northern Hemisphere has Territory replaced Support and Continuity in the eyes and mouth of experts, pundits and the majority of commentators and why is this relevant?Maybe the Principles of the game are outdated and have changed and the game has moved on beyond them?
Perhaps gaining territory has replaced ‘Support’ and ‘Continuity’ in the ranking of how to win a game and it is now more relevant to winning a game of rugby. Could it be that we do still value Support and Continuity in the Northern Hemisphere but that they have come to have different meanings in each hemisphere and this is affecting the way the game is played and the product we are watching?
Watching the Highlanders and Hurricanes in last years Super Rugby tournament, and the Chiefs and Crusaders over many years and the All Blacks, Argentina and sometimes Australia and South Africa, a pattern and style emerges.
At any stage in the match and on any part of the field you will invariably see a player run and have a ‘duel’ with an opponent – try and beat the guy opposite him. As the play unfolds you will see a team mate arrive from a position of ‘Deep Support’ somewhere near to vertically behind the ball carrier. The ball carrier if tackled might go to ground depending on several of factors, but their first choice will be to pass before, during or after the contact to the player coming out of their trail.
Within these teams this is what they mean by ‘Support’ and ‘Continuity’. They want to keep the ball alive, in the hands and off the deck. They know that once they are in behind the opposition’s defensive line it is very difficult to defend them.
Conversely, in the Northern Hemisphere ‘Support’ and ‘Continuity’ is within many teams defined as just keeping the ball, and primarily, this in effect means going to ground, setting up a ruck and keeping the ball for as many phases as possible.
What’s wrong with that?
This would appear to be high percentage, risk averse and clever rugby. Herein lies the problem. Every time you set a ruck up you allow the opponent the opportunity to re-organise and set a defensive line.
Two weeks ago watching England play against Ireland the pundits were dumbfounded. How could England not be 4 or 5 scores up at half time?
How could they have the majority of possession, dominate territory, but still not have a large margin. After all the same pundits apportion defeat to not playing ‘in the right areas’ and here was a team playing ‘in the right areas’ with all the ball! So how did they only have a very narrow winning margin at half time?
Accuracy was bounded around, and sure there were some errors.
But at the heart of the reason why England could not convert their dominance into points in the first half was this different definition of ‘Support’ and ‘Continuity’. For the majority of England’s line breaks or ‘gain line battles’ won, they were satisfied to go to ground and recycle the ball.
Sometimes they had quick ruck ball of about 3 seconds, but regardless of how quick the ball was delivered, on each and every occasion setting up a ruck allowed the defence to re-group, get shape and allow them breathing space.
Crucially, when the defence take stock they have one direction to face – forwards, they know that all the opposition are in front of them.
Any player, defence coach, General, or military tactician will tell you this is much easier to defend against than when the opposition are amongst you, your line is broken and every player is facing in a different direction (watch Braveheart and Gladiator again if you’re not sure!).
The Northern Hemisphere teams, and the other Southern Hemisphere teams who play this risk averse type of rugby need to sit up, review their definition of continuity and adapt what they are doing. Speaking to the legendary player and coach Pierre Villepreux about this issue he looked at me perplexed and said something along the lines of:
“They call it the ‘Breakdown’ now in the modern game (referring to the tackle and ruck area) – the player has been tackled and died with the ball, and the attack has broken down!