Don’t hate the coach, hate the game

JON CARDINELLI writes that winning rugby is about adapting to the laws rather than adopting a particular mindset.

It’s been interesting to note the response from rugby supporters following Heyneke Meyer’s appointment on 27 January. Most agree that the move is the right one, while others base their reservations on what is perceived to be a conservative mindset, or as some have articulated: ’10-man rugby’.

While every man and his dog is entitled to an opinion, there is no substance to the argument that Meyer is bound to a conservative strategy. Indeed, it’s just plain ignorant to assume that a powerful pack of forwards, a strong tactical kicking game and an advanced defensive system are the pillars of a conservative approach. It’s not that these aspects are synonymous with a conservative game plan, but rather that they are vital to a winning strategy under the current law set.

One has only to look at the Super Rugby competition over the past few years for evidence. The team that has won the title has been the team that has best adapted to the laws.

The Bulls won in 2009 by adapting to a law set that favoured the defending team, and in 2010 when the best attacking side enjoyed the upper hand. The 2011 competition was won by one of the better defending teams, the Reds, although it shouldn’t have surprised to see the Crusaders, Stormers and Waratahs in the top six. All four of these teams possessed a strong defensive record, a desire to dominate territory and some of the best heavies in the southern hemisphere.

It’s a trend that has also been apparent at the highest levels. The All Blacks won the 2010 Tri-Nations, and there were those that hailed New Zealand’s ‘attacking brand’ as something the Bok dinosaurs would do well to replicate. A more statistical review of that tournament would reveal that of the three Sanzar nations, the All Blacks kicked more than any other team. Their territorial approach wasn’t highlighted as much as their try-scoring feats, and this has perhaps fueled the perception that the All Blacks aren’t a side that plays according to the prescribed law set.

The Wallabies won the 2011 Tri Nations by building on what worked for the Reds in Super Rugby. Yes there were some memorable tries that highlighted the attacking talent, but the Wallabies stuck to a plan based on the tenet that territory is everything in the modern game. The All Blacks subsequently won the World Cup even though their chief tactician, Dan Carter, was absent, but their defence and forward pack played massive roles in achieving territorial dominance.

Will Graham Henry be remembered as a conservative coach for these tactics, or will he be remembered as a title-winning coach? Surely it’s the latter. Surely men like Ewen Mckenzie will go down in the history books as a Super Rugby-winning coach, just as Jake White will go down in the annals as a World Cup winner.

In professional sport, top teams are expected to win big games and titles. How can tradition dictate a team’s style of play when a sport like rugby is ever-changing? When there are jobs and large amounts of money on the line, as well as the glory that comes with a big trophy, surely a coach should formulate a game plan that’s going to give his team the best chance of success.

This is what Meyer should do in his term with the Boks. If supporters believe the Boks are too forward-oriented, that they place too much emphasis on kicking for territory and maintaining a strong defence, then they should acquaint themselves with a lawbook and study the recent trends. There is room for improvement at the Boks, particularly with regards to attacking play inside the opponents’ half, but there are also existing strengths that need to be honed and maintained.

Meyer is not the only coach to be unfairly boxed. Rassie Erasmus built the Stormers up over a four year period, paying special attention to forward development as well as defence. As a result, the Stormers qualified for the play-offs in 2010 and 2011. They were dubbed too conservative, when in reality they were just moving with the times.

There is a sector of the community, even a sector within the Stormers administration itself, that has suggested that no Super Rugby trophies equates to zero progress, and that a push for the more free-running approach similar to that of the 1980s would be more prudent. Again, it’s a view that doesn’t take the current laws into account. The Stormers have not got their balance completely right over the past two years, and that is why they have struggled to take the next step. That doesn’t mean that they are headed in the wrong direction.

If supporters are frustrated with the number of kicks in a match or with the way the modern game is played, they should channel their anger into a strongly worded letter to the IRB lawmakers. Coaches are only formulating game plans according to what they perceive to work in the current rugby environment. If rugby fans are unhappy, they shouldn’t hate the coach but rather the game in its modern guise.

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