Breaking Down The Northern Bias

In Rugby Union on April 17, 2010 at 12:32 am

So after a thrilling quartet of Heineken Cup games this weekend, which featured more free flowing action than Jay Z and Nas on a white water rafting trip, will some Northern Hemisphere pundits be retracting their complaints over the new laws at the breakdown?

As the (somewhat romanticised) story goes, rugby was invented by William Webb Ellis when he picked up the ball during a football match and ran with it rather than simply kick it away. True or not, it doesn’t matter. The point is, the essence of the sport is running with the ball, and kicking it should not be the primary option. Something was rotten in the state of Rome this February, for instance, when England and Italy played out a one try eyesore featuring 84 kicks from hand in the starring role. That’s 61% of possession kicked by the Azzuri, and 54% from England. Not even the English and Italian fans would have enjoyed watching that.

The problem was that players had become so adept at forcing turnovers at the breakdown, that no-one would take the risk of running the ball anymore. Better to just kick it away. So it is to the eternal credit of the IRB that they took positive action so promptly.

This year's Heineken Cup quarter finals were hugely enjoyable try-fests

While it was a controversial move for the authorities to introduce the new laws midway through the 6 Nations, some of the reactions were downright embarrassing. Whatever your view of the new laws (and they still have some way to go before they are bedded in properly), the indisputable fact remains that they were brought in with good intention and sound reasoning. Leaving aside the timing, which was ill-advised, the IRB’s aim was to hand the advantage back to the team in possession. As things were, the defending team was running riot, stealing ball and earning penalties seemingly every time the ball went through three or four phases.

The new laws force the tackler to disengage quickly, and give the attacking team a far better chance of retaining the ball. This is exactly how it should be. The fears of the game being ‘de-Unionised’ and transformed into a glorified version of Rugby League are understandable, but sensationalist.

Already in the Super 14, where teams have had a lot longer to get used to the laws, we are seeing players adapt. The skill for the defending team is in being the second player at the breakdown. That allows you to compete fairly for the ball, and will result in a penalty if the tackled player hasn’t released promptly. The onus is on the attacking side to support the tackled player so that the ruck is formed immediately.

There were inevitable teething problems as the players and referees got used to the new interpretations, and things aren’t silky smooth just yet. As Murray Mexted noted during a Brumbies game recently, some teams were just clogging the midfield and not competing at the breakdown. This is fine when you’re hanging on to a lead, but with everyone growing accustomed to the lie of the land, we’re seeing far more of a fair competition than the naysayers originally feared.

The problem in the Northern Hemisphere is that many pundits seemingly want the new rules to fail. They have been wrongly associated with the evil Southern Hemisphere, and the ‘basketball’ rugby of the Super 14. The infamous 72-65 win by the Chiefs over the Lions has been used as evidence of how ridiculous the Super 14 ‘pyjama rugby’ is, and has now become a stick with which to beat the new rules. The hysterical brigade have conveniently ignored the factors which contributed to that epic scoreline.

First of all, this year at least, the Lions are the equivalent of an Italian team in the European Cup. They lie winless at the foot of the table and concede nearly 50 points a game on average. So a free running team like the Chiefs, who boast attacking players of the devastating calibre of Muliaina, Sivivatu, Kahui and Masaga, were always capable of running up 70 points or so if they were in the mood.

Secondly, the Chiefs suffered three yellow cards in the game, and were playing with 13 men at one stage, during which they conceded three tries. This meant that when they inevitable did take charge again, the score read 72-37 rather than a seemingly more acceptable 62-7 or 59-20 scoreline, like the Ospreys and Clermont ran up against Viadana in this season’s Heineken Cup.

Thirdly, with the Lions flinging it round with abandon to fresh legs and speedsters like Chavangha and Mjekevu, and the Chiefs out on their feet (having played nearly half the game a man or more down) and mentally back in the dressing room, the South African side ran in a few late scores and closed the gap. 21 from 23 kicks sailing between the uprights was also a factor.

The freakish Lions-Chiefs clash has been held up as being typical of Super rugby

The result was the highest scoring game in nearly 20 years of Super rugby, and grave indignation from the precious purists. The glee with which this result was seized upon was truly unseemly, and led to journalists like Brendan Fanning taking time out from his 6 Nations analysis on RTE to make the smug claim that the Super 14 has ‘no relevance’ to Test rugby. Hmmm, Brendan, you do realise that the three countries contributing teams are the top three ranked Test sides in the World? Bizarre.

The general hostility towards the Southern Hemisphere is a bit embarrassing really, and does the game up here no favours. No matter how much scorn is heaped upon them, the point remains that they do a lot of things better than us in the areas they are traditionally strong in, such as running support lines and offloading. Sneering at these attributes doesn’t close the gap that’s developed.

Judging by the collective toy throwing and reactionary dummy spitting of certain members of our press corps during the Six Nations though, it seems that many rugby commentators in the North still have a mental picture of the Southern Hemisphere rugby-heads clinking Castlemaine cans and backslapping beside a barbecue as they plot how to further ruin the game for the Northern suckers. It’s childish in the extreme.

After this weekend’s thrilling Heineken Cup weekend though, those same commentators are back to bragging over how untouchable their Euro competition is, all breakdown quibbles seemingly forgotten in the glut of points, tries and nail-biting rugby.

Just for the record, the average points per game in those epic quarter finals of 100% Test-relevant European rugby? Just the 56.

The average points per game in that basketball style travesty down under? An ungodly 54.


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