The old game has changed a bit in the last few years. Whether by accident or conscious copying of Super Rugby, the European game has become much more open, with a tsunami of tries turning the game on its head.
Leicester and Worcester shared an 11-try thriller at Welford Road two weeks ago. Duncan Weir picked up a brace and Worcester banked the bonus point before the break. Neither side has a heritage of running rugby but both are adapting to the new era.
Over the last decade the Pro14 (and predecessor the Pro12) has gone from averaging 3.9 tries per match to 6.4 per game in the opening five rounds of this season. The change in England is much the same, rising from 4.1 to 6.4 over the same ten-year period. That is a significant 56 per cent rise and it is more than matched in the international game.
The Six Nations averaged 3.3 tries per match in 2008 but that figure leapt to 5.2 in the 2018 tournament – a rise of 58 per cent. Ireland conceded 11 tries in winning the 2018 championship earlier this year while Wales conceded just two when topping the 2008 table. Perhaps the most telling stat is that the 11 championship tries Ireland conceded last season were more than Wales scored when winning the same tournament in 2012 (ten tries) and 2013 (nine).
Of course this avalanche of scores started south of the equator, where the All Blacks and South Africa shared 11 tries between them in Wellington when the Springboks earned their first victory in New Zealand in a decade.
The last time that the Bokke won in New Zealand was 2009, when the same two teams managed two tries each, with the bulk of the scoring coming from the boot of Dan Carter and the two Steyns, Frans and Morne, who between them contributed five penalties and one drop goal to win the match.
A decade ago defence dominated, jackals predated the breakdown and the tackler had rights! Now tacklers must get to their feet and come back through the “gate”, a simple change to law 15.4 (c) that has dramatically altered the dynamic in favour of attacking. Unless the team in possession make a mistake, it is almost impossible to win the ball back.
But it isn’t just that tweak to the laws that is responsible. It occurred in the middle of 2017 when the tide had already turned. The spread of plastic pitches has helped because the breakdown has speeded up and defences have less time to get organised. The most fundamental change, though, has been in the mindset of the players. It is part psychological, part philosophical and has required a buy-in from players and coaches alike. Teams now take to the field with an attacking intent.
The New Zealand model has won the battle for rugby’s soul, helped by the fact that every other coach is a Kiwi and the realisation that rugby, once it turned pro, joined the entertainment business. It is competing with Netflix, Call of Duty and cute kittens on YouTube. Never mind JFK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner”, we are all Kiwis now – for better or worse.
If variety is the spice of life, a little more seasoning would surely be good for the modern game. I’d prefer to see a clash of styles rather than everyone playing the same way. Clermont proved that tight, one-dimensional rugby can be hugely effective when they surgically dismantled Racing 92 in the French Top14 recently with Greig Laidlaw pulling the strings at nine. But that was an exception that proves the rule. Almost universally, we have witnessed a steady homogenisation of the game and that may actually pose a problem.
Super Rugby’s audiences gorge on an unrelenting diet of tries, a record average of 7.28 per match this year, yet average crowds dropped 25 per cent from 2015 to 2017.
A common mistake when looking at statistical trends is to see them as linear, as was the case when it seemed try counts were falling inexorably. Rather, these trends tend to be circular and the question, especially ahead of the World Cup next autumns, is where do we go from here? Have we reached “peak tries”?
I wonder if the worm is turning just a little, especially as nations eye the big tournament next year.
Referees could tweak their interpretation of the breakdown to give defenders a sporting chance by penalising those attackers who repeatedly roll over to buy extra time. As things stand, the dice are heavily stacked in favour of the attack and watching a team run through endless phases of one dimensional attack is guaranteed to send you back to those kittens on YouTube.
Moreover, you have to think that Steve Hansen has lit a fire under the All Blacks’ defence after his side leaked ten tries in the three Tests against Argentina (3), South Africa (5) and again Argentina (2).
In line with everyone else, Ireland’s defence is getting softer. Under Les Kiss, who introduced the “choke tackle”, Ireland conceded a try every 55 minutes. On Andy Farrell’s watch that figure is down to 36 minutes. Italy were hammered in the last Six Nations but still managed three tries in Dublin, which would have comfortably won them that match a decade ago. “D” is an obvious place for improvement and Joe Schmidt is not the type to ignore an open goal.
The modern method of defending is to stand off the breakdown, ensure the line is manned and press very hard in the inner channels. This aggressive “rush” defence, started by Wales (or the Ospreys or Saracens) has been copied by pretty much everyone, everywhere. Line speed can catch the opposition well behind the gain line but it also produces a higher percentage of missed tackles and leaves space out wide if the team in possession can bypass the rush with a chip, a kick/pass or a simple miss pass.
Where is the innovation? Where is the next stage in the evolution of defence? When does the fightback against cricket scores begin?
A smart defence coach, perhaps even much-maligned John Mitchell of England, has a chance to make history as the man who won the World Cup… and earned the gratitude of rugby fans worldwide.