Rugby fans must move with the times

JON CARDINELLI writes that supporters and reporters pushing for an out-and-out attacking philosophy have zero appreciation for the current laws and trends.

You cannot go to a Stormers or Western Province press conference nowadays without hearing the same questions being asked. ‘When is the ball going to get to the wings? Why aren’t we playing rugby like the great Province team of the 1980s?’

Allister Coetzee had fewer grey hairs when he first started as head coach. Every week since he’s had to listen to ignorant and misinformed reporters whining about running rugby. He’s also had to endure criticism and accusations that the Cape side play a boring brand.

Springbok and WP captain Jean de Villiers looked exhausted when he faced the media last week, and perhaps that’s what caused him to forget protocol when answering this question for the umpteenth time.

De Villiers pointed to the Super Rugby competition as an example, where the Stormers had finished top of the 16-team league. Why, De Villiers asked, would they change a game plan that allowed them to win the South African conference? Indeed, it was just a week or so before De Villiers’s return that an experimental and more attacking approach had cost WP in a Currie Cup match.

The Stormers and WP are not the only teams to be criticised in this manner.

Bok coach Heyneke Meyer’s game plan is considered by many to be overly conservative. I’ve watched Meyer closely when he’s been asked about the game plan, I’ve seen him roll his eyes. The reporters have asked him, they’ve begged him, to change tact. Why oh why, they pleaded, couldn’t the Boks play attacking rugby like the All Blacks?

These people haven’t got a clue.

The All Blacks won all six of their Rugby Championship matches, and it was before that final match at Soccer City when Meyer made special mention of the New Zealanders’ defence. Their record in this year’s tournament will show that they’re the best defensive side by some distance, having conceded just six tries. After the game at the Calabash, Meyer again paid tribute to that defence, as well as the game management of flyhalf Dan Carter.

The All Blacks may be the finest attacking team on the planet, but their defence and kicking game has been the bedrock of their success. This has allowed them to win the 2011 World Cup, as well as the 2012 Rugby Championship, and has put them into a position to break the record for the most consecutive Test victories.

The All Blacks conceded one try per game in the Rugby Championship. The tournament average was 1.83. It’s clear the All Blacks were a cut above in this department, but when you compare this stat to the averages of lesser competitions, it confirms that defences are harder to crack at the elite level.

The defence may be weaker as you drop down the tiers of competition, but the common denominator is that the best defensive teams in the respective tournaments either go on to top the log or win a trophy. It wasn’t a surprise to see the best defensive teams finishing in the top six of the Super Rugby league. The round robin phase of the Currie Cup recently concluded, and wouldn’t you know it, the teams with the best defensive records have advanced to the play-offs.

One level down, and it is the Eastern Province Kings who have topped the First Division log, their unbeaten record closely correlated with defensive stats that read 27 tries conceded in 14 matches, 19 tries fewer than the second-placed Pumas.

Coincidence? I think not.

What rugby supporters need to understand is that the current law set prescribes an outstanding defence and kicking game as the key ingredients to any title surge. There may be instances where a team doesn’t execute effectively on the day, as has been the case for a few Cape teams over the past few seasons, but that doesn’t mean that the game plan is at fault.

The fact that teams like the All Blacks and the Sharks have enjoyed such try-scoring success shouldn’t detract from their defensive strengths. The Sharks started to come right towards the end of the Super Rugby competition when they embraced a balanced approach (they altered their previous strategy which had placed too much emphasis on attack). In the 2012 Currie Cup, they have finished the league in first place, having scored the most tries and conceded the fewest.

If you can wrap your head around these trends, you will realise why the Bok game plan is not flawed. I’m not saying the Boks are exempt from criticism, but rather that they should be judged and scrutinised within this framework.

Does Meyer have the right personnel for this game plan? Are the players executing the game plan efficiently? These are the questions the intelligent rugby supporter should be asking, not when the Boks, WP or the Bulls are going to start running the ball from their own tryline.

If you don’t like the way the game is played nowadays, by all means channel your aggression into a strongly worded letter to the IRB. The world’s coaches and players develop their game plans according to the laws. If the rules were tweaked so that the breakdown wasn’t such a lottery, perhaps more teams would take more attacking risks in their own half. There would be less kicking and more running.

For now, that remains a pipe dream. As long as the rules remain as is, teams will continue to place an emphasis on kicking and defence. It’s something that rugby fans must learn to accept: that there are no prizes for losing beautifully.

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