Archive for October, 2019

Put the house on it….

So after England beat the All Blacks in the RWC semi final, Chinny, the born again Pom, sent me a text telling me to mortgage the house and put it on England to win the final. Indeed the England win over the All Blacks has resulted in a sudden media and fan driven anointing of the English, having won one game against the All Blacks, as the new world champions. But we heard all that a few weeks ago when the Aussies did the same to us in the first Bledisloe Cup game; in fact their 6-try, 47:26 win against the All Blacks was far more impressive than the English win. Media and fans suddenly proclaimed the Wallabies as the world champions in waiting. That only lasted one week until we took them down 36 nil in the rematch. If there was an England/ NZ re-match this week I would still back NZ to take that game. It is all to do with edge in motivation giving you the physical edge. That edge is always easier to gain as the challenger than to maintain as the incumbent. But what was important was that the Wallabies in Perth and the English in Yokohama actually beat us when they both played what we refer to as the All Blacks game. So exactly what game is that?

Over the period of five years from 2004 to 2009, a World Rugby project of ‘Experimental Law Variations’ examined the whole nature of the game of rugby union. The new ruck/ maul laws that came out from this great experiment might have referred to caring for the health and safety of Rugby’s ’employees’ (in respect of Rugby Associations legal exposure as employers), but also they were designed also to speed up and open up the game to make it more of a TV spectacle to attract new fans and more sponsors. World Rugby effectively converted the game of Rugby Union to being a hybrid Rugby League/ Union game. Rugby Union still doesn’t have the six tackle rule and still maintains genuine scrums but in this new age rugby union game, the basic strategy is to achieve the fast recycling of the ball through off-loads minimum, minimum numbers to clear tackled rucks and cross kick passing, just like League. Backs and forwards merge in roles; backs are expected to compete for possession in rucks and join rolling mauls; locks turn up as first receivers and midfield attack runners; front rowers are sea-gulling out on the wing. The objective is to keep the ball alive; the less time bogged down in set piece play the faster the game. The one little flaw in rugby union’s version of rugby league, let us call it rugby fusion, is that we still have 15 players, not 13 as in League, and so our defensive line gets too clogged up. Still, a few more rule tweaks can no doubt sort that out.

The French have always had a flare for this fusion style of rugby, but only when they could be arsed doing it, otherwise they were equally happy just squeezing opponents’ testicles in the dark depths of a ruck just for laughs. The Aussies sort of got it. I would even put a few bob on the possibility that Cheika was awarded the WR Coach of the year back in 2015 on a promise to deliver Rugby Fusion with the Wallabies. He probably meant well but I  think either Cheika’s heart or head was not really in this new fangled style of rugby. It came together for the team a couple of times but with nowhere near the consistency to keep him in his job. Japan is a team that has embraced the new fusion style of play and lit up the rugby world in the previous RWV with a win over South Africa and again in 2019 coming in top of their pool, beating Ireland, who had recently had world #1 ranking, along the way.

But without question New Zealand have adapted to this new high-speed rugby fusion style of play much better than other countries. At the same time the highly technical laws of scrums, mauls and rucks have become a major source of frustration to traditional fans and players alike. Much of the rest of the rugby world claim New Zealand gets preferential treatment by the refereeing establishment in their implementation of these technical laws, particularly in the scavenging role around rucks. Perhaps there is some truth at times, but if you are the only team that is enthusiastically adopting the new-age game, then those in rugby power who appoint the referees will be well pleased with you and may well be ‘encouraging’ (although they most certainly were not encouraging in the last Lions test).

The key to success in this new rugby fusion is extreme fitness and conditioning combined with high speed ball-skills training. Interesting to note that the ‘ball-in-play’ time today is 50% higher (average 40 minutes a game) than it was in 1987 when RWC began. Over the past ten years, no one embraced this physical challenge like the All Blacks.

England had defiantly stuck to the traditions of rugby; that it was a thug’s sport played by gentlemen, in contrast to football which was a gentleman’s sport played by thugs. But then England ‘got the memo’ when they were thoroughly embarrassed by not making it through the pool stages in the 2015 RWC on their home ground. Eddie Jones was brought in and has spent the past four years coaching traditional rugby union out of the English team and teaching them how to play fusion style. But it has taken him all of those four years to get his team’s fitness and conditioning levels to the point where they could execute this fast-paced style of game for a full 80 minutes. They first really got it right in the pre tournament match against Ireland, then followed up in the quarter final against Australia and then showed they could go back to back in the semi against New Zealand and, on their day, beat the best of the best at fusion rugby.  Now they face the big challenge.

After token efforts to adopt this new age style of rugby, South Africa has returned to the bastion of old school rugby (if they ever really left it) and the question will be asked whether England has the mental and physical conditioning to play one more of those high pace games against the black hole, brute force of South Africa.

This is the game that will put them up against the toughest of the old school rugby exponents; a team that just squeezes the life and joy out of a game in order to get a penalty or drop kick shot at goal. For that is what New Zealand knew they would have to face and for which they were possibly pacing themselves. I do not really think Eddie Jones had ‘pace yourselves’ in his final briefing for the semi final; and that was probably the intensity difference between the two teams on the day. I am far from convinced that the English fitness and conditioning would be at such a level to enable them to repeat their semi final performance against the powerhouse defence of the Springboks. Even the All Blacks have struggled with that challenge over the past season.

But this is much bigger than a question of which team can last it out for the 80 minutes and win fair and square. England with 340,000 players is only marginally behind France as the two standout economic powerhouses of the northern hemisphere. This Finals Match is a battle between old school and fusion style rugby. A battle that World Rugby has a very, very vested interest in. If the very top level rugby required to win world championships reverts back to the old school union that we saw in the Springboks v Wales semi final, then TV and its sponsors will be switching their focus and money on more exciting sporting options like lawn bowls or cars driving around a track 50 or 60 times. South Africa at 650,000 players has almost as many as England and France combined. This is the Helm’s Deep of rugby.

For World Rugby, England adopting Rugby Fusion must be ‘encouraged.’ No one needs South Africa to stomp back to the caves of stone age rugby, golden cup held aloft, fee, fie foh, fen, brimming with the blood of the Englishmen.

If a ‘let the best team win’ outcome was the objective, I would have thought Nigel was the obvious choice for referee of the final, given his bias-free effort in the English-NZL semi final. It was odd that, given no one had a bad word to say about his refereeing, they have given the Final to Jerome. There was plenty to be said about Jerome’s refereeing in the other semi, and not flattering. You remember Jerome? Of the “Oui Jerome?” fame. Come on, you remember, third game of the Lions tour of New Zealand, final minutes, play stopped as officials desperately tried to figure out how to reverse the penalty that Monsieur Poite had already awarded the All Blacks; a series-winning penalty in front of the posts. A gimme. The evidence blatant, from all TV angles; even the offender conceded his moment of madness. But when, heads bowed, the referee, nearside touch judge and the TMO all agreed that the penalty just had to be awarded, unavoidable, a whisper from Jerome away across on the far pitch; an instruction secretly transmitted into the monsieur Poite’s earpiece and out came the game-saver “we ‘ave a deal……occidental offside, no penalty.”  A very creative referee is oui Jerome, just the man for the job and I would not be surprised if this appointment is just reward for that fine call two years ago. “Honest Nigel” apparently could not be appointed because of a sore leg gained during the first half of the semi final game. I didn’t see any sign of a limp, but nonetheless a sore leg wouldn’t stop them putting the world’s most experienced referee in the TMO seat. But the support refereeing jobs have gone to Jerome’s old partner of the Lions third game, Monsieur Poite, and a couple of under cooked NZ referees, both called Ben.

So my pick for the final? South Africa will be penalised out of the game or England will be under penalised into the game, or a combination. Things will be seen or not seen as required. It will be a famous victory for England and will inspire the northern hemisphere into the exciting new era of Rugby Fusion. South Africa will be sent back to sit in their corner and think about things for a while. And although the All Blacks should not need any support from the officials to see off Wales for the consolation prize, they have put our dear old Wayne Barnes in to keep an eye on things.

What forward pass? I didn’t see a forward pass?

You DO remember Barnsey, Cardiff 2007? Now there is a man who knows how to miss a forward pass from three metres away. This time hopefully he is there just to ensure that the other fine exponent of fast open rugby also comfortably sees off the Gatland-coached old schoolers from the valleys. The Taffies can also go away and have a think about themselves.

So I think Chinny could be right. My faith in my corporate conspiracy theory means  it would be well worth a punt to put the house on England to win, unless…………

Hello Mr Jones, I wonder if the team would like a nice cup of tea with some sandwiches for your meeting?

Eddie: “Why thank you Susie, very sweet of you, that would be lovely. Ok lads, grab a cup of tea and sandwich and gather round the whiteboard.”

Now I just KNOW you remember the ’95 final, just sayin’ is all.

Footnote:

South Africa won, convincingly 32:12. Penalties awarded 10 against England 8 against South Africa. I was wrong on two counts: clearly no referee bias in favour of England and South Africa did not take Rugby back to the stone age; they played as openly as anyone could expect in a RWC Final. I recall after the last RWC final in 2015 I wrote my blog pledging to never again raise the issue of referee bias. To be fair, the 3rd Lions test in 2017 did give me good reason to break that pledge, however now let me reaffirm my pledge to abandon my quest to seek out conspiracies and hidden agendas (until the next time). But I cannot leave off the subject without noting in the final a player found himself “accidentally offside” in identical circumstances to the All Black Lions situation and was immediately penalised by Oui Jerome. No hesitation this time, just sayin’….

The only credit I can now take is my claim that without referee ‘encouragement’ I did not think England could get up for another game like they played against the All Blacks; that they might have run the tank too low one game early, which mistiming probably cost us a NZ v RSA final. England fading in the last 20 minutes to concede two excellent tries confirmed that. Still, the All Blacks finished the tournament with a well earned consolation prize; we were given the chance to end as winners and took it. England finished the year as losers. They have to wait months to get another chance for a win. Winning the semi final has been totally eclipsed by their failure to finish the job. Fee fie foe fen….we are off for a braai with our African friends

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