NZ Rugby World
THE NUT CRACKER
EVERYONE COULD SEE RUGBY WAS BECOMING MORE DEFENSIVE FROM 2017 AND IN 2020 IT HIT NEW LOWS IN CREATIVITY. BUT THE ALL BLACKS BELIEVE THEY COULD STILL FORCE A REVOLUTION BY SHOWING THE WORLD HOW TO ATTACK.
There was a weekend in November last year that did untold damage to the popularity of test rugby. In the Southern Hemisphere Australia and Argentina played out an entirely forgettable draw in the Tri Nations that barely conjured two minutes of creative rugby.
While in the North, the Autumn Nations Cup produced equally awful rugby where all teams booted the ball to the heavens and put all their eggs into the defensive basket. It was a sign of where things had reached – no one wanted to attack with the ball in hand but instead it was kick and tackle, kick and tackle.
It was so bad that former England coach Sir Clive Woodward felt moved to write something in his column for the Daily Mail. “Eddie Jones is right when he says trends in rugby tend to be cyclical — but he is wrong to label the current concerns of many as alarmist and silly.
“This feels very different. The fundamental nature of the game is changing and many diehard rugby stalwarts I speak to are beginning to lose faith. If their appetite is waning, I cannot imagine what new viewers are thinking.
“For the first time I can rem ember, teams with prime possession no longer want the ball. Teams with sensational runners and counter-attackers have virtually given up doing what they do best.”
Woodward was ridiculed for his comments and the inevitable claims that he hadn’t been averse to kicking and mauling when he was England coach surfaced.
But Woodward’s point was not made after just one dire weekend. International rugby has been heading in this direction for a few years now.
There was a distinct shift in 2018 towards defensive rugby. Maybe it was the Lions who encouraged it when they came to New Zealand in 2017 and showed how effective a rush defence and box kicking could be.
It was hard rugby to love but the Lions made it effective as they left New Zealand with a drawn series against the All Blacks.
The following year Ireland and England became more defensive and conservative in style as did South Africa and Wales. Most teams were seeing how linespeed could be used as a weapon and they doubled down on that by deciding they would rather not play with the ball so kicked much of their possession away.
The World Cup semi-final between South Africa and Wales was a warning sign of what was to come. Two teams playing at snail’s pace, hoisting the ball from halfback and then looking to drive mauls from anywhere on the field.
It was a terrible game of rugby and yet in 2020 we saw that style take a greater hold of the landscape. The games in the UK took place in empty stadiums because of social distancing requirements. But Woodward was making the point that unless there is a dramatic shift away from the obsession with rush defence and kick and grind rugby, there will still be thousands of empty seats long after the Covid 19 pandemic has gone.
Rugby purists reject the idea entirely that test football is in the entertainment business, but there is no doubt that it is.
Jones responded to Woodward’s comments by saying: “I don’t think rugby is ever boring. I think rugby is such a fantastic sport and to say that is disrespectful to the players and disrespectful to the sport. The game’s played in a number of different ways and can be won in a number of different ways, and I remember playing against England when we were mauled for 50 yards.”
What Jones didn’t say but implied was that any style of rugby is justifiable if it produces victories. Anything can wash with the paying public if the result is a win. But that’s a dangerous line to tread as while the purists say that victories win fans and drive interest, rugby sold exclusively as drama with little spectacle is high risk.
If you serve up 80 minutes of turgid football, devoid of attacking ambition or subtle attacking refinery, it's asking everyone to care only about the outcome.
There is only a destination, no journey and soon enough, even the best teams will lose a few games and suddenly the ticket prices seem extortionate and the economics of the entire professional game are impacted.
Rugby is a game of balance – always has been. There is a place for both brutal defence and clever attack and the best teams have always combined the two.
But the current era is not producing balanced rugby. That much was obvious in 2019, which is why on the eve of the World Cup, former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, said: “I think there's a bias towards the defence. I think that's definitely happened. And then because of that, everyone thinks we are closer than we probably really are.
“But someone's going to crack that defensive nut, because history tells us it will happen. And when it does, then it will open up the floodgates for the attacking game to come strong again. Then everyone will be saying there's a bias towards attacking, and they'll go away and work harder on what they're going to do on defence.”
That nutcracker wasn’t found in Japan and the fact England and South Africa
made the final, only encouraged more teams to go down the defensive route. The game in 2020 became more conservative and defensive.
Argentina pulled off their famous win against the All Blacks not with counter attacking or creative rugby, but with a monumental defensive effort combined with a strong set-piece and clever kicking.
Scotland, who were the great entertainers between 2017 and 2019, are now building everything on their defence and without doubt, the international game has drifted back to a conservative state where defences have become so good, so disruptive, that teams are again choosing to kick possession away and then tackle their opponent into mistakes or submission.
It is a period not too dissimilar to the one at the start of the millennium and one that didn’t suit the All Blacks then either.
“There are a number of reasons why I stopped playing the game and all of them combined to the point where I'd had enough,” says former All Blacks wing Jeff Wilson.
“One of them was the fact that the game had got to the point where there was no space and it wasn't as much fun. It became an arm wrestle and in my last two seasons it was kick and defend and I thought the game in the early 2000s became a scrap where defences were winning the day.
“England won a World Cup playing the way they did - they scrummed, they kicked and they defended and we are in that cycle again.”
The statistic produced in the Tri Nations and Autumn Nations Cup tell the story of how defences have come to dominate. Australia and Argentina scored two tries between them in 160 minutes of rugby. Argentina in fact only scored two tries in the entire championship.
While in Europe, when the big guns of the Six Nations met, there were never more than three tries per game.
Possibly of more concern was the intensity of the collisions. There was an underlying concern that there will be broken athletes all over the world if this sort of rugby persists.
But no one has their eye on anything beyond next week in test football and when defensive rugby is proving so successful, what reason is there to change?
Defence is dominating tests and that's maybe because it is a coachable skill not reliant so much on genetics or natural instincts, but attitude and hard work.
Obsessive defence is the game's great leveller – a means for limited teams to punch above their weight and prevent the focus falling on their inability to pass and catch under pressure or naturally determine when and how to exploit a numerical advantage.
But it's also an entertainment killer and national unions won't be able to mend Covid-broken balance sheets if the game continues to be dominated by defensive rugby. After a while, no one will want to come to watch rugby like that.
The All Blacks don’t thrive in a defensive world. They know this partly because history tells them and partly because every inch of their rugby DNA is geared towards using the ball and attacking.
It’s not their natural setting to kick and tackle. They can do both, but they don’t want to restrict their attacking game to something that basic.
“Each year everyone is getting bigger, faster and stronger and most teams are willing to back their defence now to win games,” says All Blacks lock
“If you have that mind-set then you are going to have games decided on defence. But like anything, you want to score points because that is what rugby is about. You have to attack.”
If the defensive stranglehold is going to be broken and the emphasis placed back on building inventive attack, then it is the All Blacks who are going to have to pave the way.
They are the self-appointed custodians of pass and catch rugby and they want to get back to a world where teams are happier playing with the ball and willing to attack through a variety of means.
This one-dimensional defensive world of tackling and box kicking is not one the All Blacks want to see exist for much longer.
They have lost in recent seasons to the suffocating rugby employed by England, Ireland, South Africa and Argentina, but they remain convinced their all-out attack approach can find a way to succeed.
They won’t give up on this idea that they can force teams to rethink their defensive stance and what we are presumably going to see in 2021 is an All Blacks side that tries to build its attacking weaponry and learn how to use all the various parts of it to be effective.
That was something they never quite managed to do in 2020. Not consistently anyway. In Sydney we saw something close to what they were aiming for – a mix of clever kicking and swift handling to score six tries. Against Argentina in the final game of the year we saw the All Blacks use their scrum and lineout to pressure the Pumas, before they were finally able to blow them open in the last 10 minutes.
The challenge this year is finding ways to balance the attack and better read where the space is. We might not see them rip teams open from the off as has so often been the case in the past, but instead it will take patience, vision and variation to break teams down.
“They changed the rules at the breakdown a few years back to favour the attacking team but defences got smarter and worked out how to keep 14 or 15 men on their feet,” said All Blacks assistant coach John Plumtree during the Tri Nations.
“That is something that teams in the North do well and it is certainly something Argentina are good at. But we do see opportunities [to attack] and we have got to get better at seeing the space and it's not
just about running into it, it is also about kicking. Defences are getting really good though and when the All Blacks tend to get beaten is when defences dominate attack.”
The schedule for the All Blacks is still to be signed off and will depend on travel restrictions but it is shaping as a normal year with three tests in July, a Rugby Championship and then an end of year tour with tests lined up against Ireland, France and Italy and maybe more to come.
That will provide the All Blacks with all sorts of different defensive systems to play against and at the end of 2020, Foster said: “We need to get a little more physicality and use our set piece as a weapon. Ironically our lineout went from No 10 in the world last year to No 1 this year, so we saw real positive signs in that area – particularly our driving play off it and the consistency of ball.
“That’s why I’m immensely proud of that last game. Whilst we deserved criticism for the loss to Argentina, I thought that 38-0 was an absolute methodical game where we applied a lot of the things we had learned from the previous two and really stayed clearer and more focused on what we wanted to do.
“We put a lot of onus on getting the strongest and clearest decision-makers on the park and when we don't make good decisions that's where the finger gets pointed,” he said.
Some will say it is a stunning act of ill-conceived defiance by the All Blacks that they continue to believe they can attack their way past any defence and build the breadth of game to ensure they can score tries in this age of destructive tackling.
But the statistics support them in their belief they can do it. Everyone agrees that defences are dominating and have been since 2017, yet the All Blacks still managed to score 287 tries in the last World Cup cycle at an average of 5.4 a game.
That’s more than they managed in the previous World Cup cycle where they scored a total of 209 for an average of 3.9 per test.
Even this year, one where rugby has seemingly been plunged further into a defensive and box-kicking mire, the All Blacks scored 21 tries in six tests.
Hansen was convinced the nutcracker moment was going to come in 2019. What he got wrong was the timing. The All
Blacks are committed to manufacturing an attack game that can blow anything and everything apart and the breakthrough may come in 2021.