A few years ago TG4 stated a series called ‘Rugbai Gold’ where they showed ‘classic’ matches from the 1970s and 1980s. To those of us whose memories of those games consisted of, at best, watching them on our parents’ knees, it was like watching a different sport to the one on display today. Backs were tiny, jerseys were enormous billowing cotton things, scrum-halves passed the ball with a full-length horizontal dive thrown in, the lineout was a back-alley brawl where the team with the throw had a marginally better chance of winning the ball, and if they did it was the pig ugly sort you could do nothing with. And the scrums! About 90 of them a match, and largely self-regulated, more a means to restart the game than a licence to draw penalties from the opposition. The rucks were generally a pile-up where you could flop in off your feet at your leisure. Well, at least some things never change.
Yes, indeed, it was a different sport – until John Langford came along and told the Paddies that going out on the beer on a Thursday perhaps wasn’t the best preparation for a game on a Saturday. But here’s the thing. You don’t have to go back 30 or even 20 years to see an anachronistic version of the game which bears little resemblance to that which is played today. You don’t have to go back even 10. Have a look at the highlights reel of Toulouse vs. Leinster, the high-watermark of the Cheiks & Knoxy version of Leinster. Defensive lines are broken at will, dog-legs appear everywhere, the contest flows from one end of the pitch to the other and back ; several sensational tries are scored as backlines create mismatches and speedsters find themselves up against second rows with regularity. And this is Toulouse – the best team of that era! These days, the only time the action could be described as end-to-end is during one of the frequent kick-tennis battles that punctuate most games.
The game has changed irreparably. Players are huge, from 1 to 15. Injuries are more numerous and serious and the nature of how the game is played has totally changed. Off-the-cuff rugby is a thing of the past. Who even talks about ‘broken field running’ anymore? It never happens. When the full-back catches the ball these days the chase is so organised the field is scarcely broken. It’s become a game of systems. The best teams and coaches are those who devise systems to expose the weaknesses in the opposition’s systems. The all-conquering All Blacks team rarely plays off the cuff; they adhere to their principles of clearing the ruck, kicking for territory in their own half, and lethal accuracy in execution of passing and offloading. Make no mistake, they are great to watch and a superb team, but don’t mistake what they do for ‘flair’. The closest we have seen to real flair this year was Clermont’s win at home to Munster, where they showed an impressive willingness to put the ball into the hands of their unstructured game-breakers Napolioni Nalaga and Wesley Fofana. Oddly, some of the better rugby on display this season has come from the Not-so-Boshiership, where a handful of teams, chiefly Bath, have been commited to trying to play the game in a watchable fashion. Until Sam Burgess was shoe-horned into the team anyway.
The combination of highly organised defensive systems and huge players mean that space is at a premium. Breaking the defensive line is difficult, so clean breaks are rare. Even if a player can break the first tackle, he is usually swept up by the second layer of defence. As a result the battle for metres is fought out either with the boot or on the gainline, with leg-driving forwards deployed to win yards after contact.
The 2003-2007 era may well be viewed as something of a sweet spot in the game. By 2003, professionalism had bedded in to ensure the players were fitter and stronger, and some sort of cohesion and structure had been imposed on defences, but sides with a creative streak could impose themselves on more physical opponents. Cheika’s Leinster, for example. They had a mediocre pack, but could somehow get their backs enough ball to thrive and while they didn’t win silverware, they were plenty competitive. It wouldn’t be possible today; the glitzy three-quarterline would simply be squeezed out. Ulster’s team this season have a similar make-up. They might have coped in 2006, but not today, where it’s nigh on impossible for a pack lacking the necessary oomph to impose itself on an opposing group of monsters. Having superior skill in the back division counts for little these days if you don’t have the power up front.
The 2007 World Cup and 2009 Lions tour were game-changing events. Argentina’s monstrous pack and kick-chase tactics redefined the approach to competing for territory, while the 2009 Lions series was unmatched in its ferocity by anything in the game up until that point. It also marked a turning point in the sheer number of injuries a panel must learn to deal with. Since then, player sizes, emphasis on physicality and gym work and the number and scale of injuries have only increased further. When Jack Conan was awarded man of the match last week, his coach Leo Cullen appraised him as a fine player, noting in particular the numbers he was posting in the gym.
You can’t stop progress and it’s pointless to wax nostalgic for times past, but it would be remiss to fail to acknowledge that something has been lost in the process. The spectacle of rugby has been diminished. With fewer Christophe Dominicis and Shane Williamses, and more Yoann Hugets and Alex Cuthberts, rugby has lost a little of its watchability. It’s still a great game, no question, but the ratio of good, watchable matches to rubbish is not as high as it was.
We talked about Ireland and New Zealand as systems based teams, but at least they’re well coached and play like they know what they’re doing. What about the poorly coached sides? The rugby they produce is simply awful. Munster’s season is kept afloat by two pick-and-jam wins over their neighbours. Their focus in attack is so narrow it barely extends beyond the ruck. Their only player with a maverick instinct, JJ Hanrahan, has been marginalised, with more mundane, steady-hand-on-the-tiller types preferred in his place. They play a ‘rugby of fear’, encouraged to take the lowest risk option every time. Anything remotely unpredictable is treated with suspicion. It’s this sort of mentality that sees JJ Hanrahan leaving Munster. It’s a remarkable, ridiculous state of affairs. Munster have been crying out for a midfield player who can pass the ball to their fastmen like Simon Zebo and Keith Earls for god knows how long, and when they finally get one, they leave him out of the team, instead picking a big lad who can run straight, so he packs his bags for Northampton. It’s like waiting in the rain for a bus for 40 minutes and when it finally arrives deciding you’re going to walk instead.
Up the M7, Leinster are teeth-grindingly poor to watch. Any feedback from within the camp is all about how much the players like Matt O’Connor and how they feel they owe him a performance. He has empowered the players an given them freedom to play within their own structures, apparently. Jamie Heaslip even said that the players really enjoy having so much freedom to think, after the “robotic” Joe Schmidt years. That’s fine, but Robotic Rugby was pretty successful, and pretty good to watch – and probably pretty satisfying as a player. It immediately set off an alarm in our mind, and put us in mind of a polar opposite comment from Paul O’Connell – after his first experience of Schmidt, he spoke of how pissed off he was at the coach continually interrupting sessions to point out pedantic and minor errors in things like O’Connell’s ruck positioning and clearing out. Schmidt appears more demanding and authoritative than O’Connor. O’Connor may be popular in the dressing room, but Schmidt gets results. These days, there’s little room for improvisation and empowering.
If you look at the successful coaches in world rugby post the 2009 Lions series, you have names like Warren Gatland, Graham Henry, Steve Hansen, Heineke Meyer, Joe Schmidt, Bernard Laporte – all ruthless pragmatists for whom the system is everything, and the players’ job is to fit into the system and execute accordingly. Each of these coaches are inextricably linked to on-field generals who act as their coach’s de facto rep on-field – respectively Sam Warburton, Ruchie and Kieran Read, Victor, Jonny Sexton and Jonny Wilkinson. Everything is directed to a minute degree – and incredibly successful.
Compare these men to those currently coaching the provinces – Pat Lam spoke on OTB about his vision for Connacht this week, and it was all about systems, outcomes, processes and players executing within those confines. Witness how his centres and short passing game ruthlessly exposed Munster’s defensive weakness in that area last week. Matt O’Connor, meanwhile, presides over a Leinster team who are keeping above water merely on the individual quality in the squad – the players wax effusive about how much they like him, but is that really the point? It’s not working. Neil Doak, up in Ulster, is too new is his role to reach a definitive judgement, but Ulster look less effective every match he is in charge – individual errors multiply and there is no coherent sense that the players know what they are doing. Munster, to Axel Foley’s credit, at least seem to know what they are doing. It might be pretty ineffective – leaving aside the Leinster games, Munster have had a poor year on the pitch – and unambitious enought to prompt their most talented young back to jump ship, but at least it’s something. But only Lam looks like the kind of new-era coach who might go on to bigger and better things.
One final, strange thought. Systems? Robotic rugby? Processes? Didn’t Ireland once have a coach who was hounded out of the job for imposing too much of a stranglehold on the players? Come back Eddie, all is forgiven. Maybe he didn’t so much become outdated as simply arrive before his time.