Across the Six Nations, the Under-20 World Cup and the opening rounds of the Rugby Championship, it is clear that teams who have played with a high tempo attack are winning the competitions.
As I have said previously in this column, while at Oregon University, Sport Scientist Jace Delaney defined game speed as “performing at a high level of intensity without compromising technique, tactics or decision making.” A simple but highly accurate picture of the elements required for fast paced attack.
If you watch the opening 20 minutes of New Zealand’s performance against the Springboks last weekend you will see the personification of Delaney’s definition.
In that period the Kiwis attacking flow was as close to perfect as the game permits. Every pass was in front of the receiving runner, who in turn were at top pace when accepted the ball. With exceptional footwork before the tackle, which produced many post contact metres, this all combined to provide LQB (Lightening Quick Ball) from the New Zealanders’ rucks that poured fuel on to their attacking fire.
In the opening eight minutes, the Kiwis terrorised the South African defenders with simply astonishing game speed that was created by the accuracy of their skills. When Aaron Smith ran another of his brilliant support lines to accept an inside pass from a Will Jordan attacking thrust, the shortcomings in the Boks rushing defensive systems were exposed. The New Zealand attack was literally unstoppable.
New Zealand accepted the restart and commenced another stanza of sizzling game speed at a tempo so extreme that after 20 minutes they led the current world champions 17-0.
Since November 2022 the Springboks’ monolithic game plan has lost to France, Ireland and New Zealand, who all utilise high tempo game speed as their primary attacking weapon. Without a dramatic strategic rethink of both their attack and defence, the Boks are in deep trouble.
After watching the brilliance of the New Zealanders’ performance, the match in Sydney between the Pumas and the Wallabies seemed as if the field was made of wet concrete. The pace of the game was achingly slow, the passing was poor and the contact skills inaccurate. It was a disappointing, error ridden, penalty-a-thon. I am sad to say that the Wallabies and the Pumas are in a division well below the Boks and Kiwis.
As in so many other matches in recent years, the Wallabies were leading in the dying moments but again lacked the mental grit and collective belief to close out the match. In another embarrassing episode in what is now a litany of Wallaby ill-discipline spanning many seasons, a soft penalty reversal gave the Pumas field position from which they sealed the deal with a last minute try.
Australia’s inability to create match winning game speed is a result of the inferior systems, structures and technical coaching in the Australian system below the Wallabies. The Australian elite player pathway is not equipping the players with the skills to dominate when they reach the international level.
During the recent Under 20s World Cup we grabbed a glimpse into the quality of every leading rugby country’s elite player educational system. While Ireland regrettably lost the final, it is clear that after consecutive Six Nations Grand Slam wins and reaching a World Cup final that the system here is being conducted at an exceptionally high standard.
However, it is France who emphatically won their third consecutive Under-20 title. The French aim to create a high tempo game speed by using their traditional attacking game based on creating space from offloads. The French Under-20s delivered a monumental 70 offloads across the tournament. The true strength of this statistic can be found when we compare it with the team that produced the second most offloads, England, who could only create 30.
That statistic leaves no doubt that French coaches are teaching their players how to offload out of the tackle, post contact. This is the fundamental core of their traditional attacking mode. Offloads destroy defensive systems because the attacking play is created behind the defensive line.
The other huge advantage French rugby has over its rivals in developing its elite players is that across the French Top 14 and the Pro D2 there are 31 teams that require French players. So all but three of the 23 players who started the final for France had significant game time in those leagues.
Providing elite underage talent with high quality match experience is a key element to any high performance programme. With only four professional teams in Ireland, the competition for starting places in the provincial teams is so intense that the skill level required for selection is almost always significantly above even the best Irish underage players.
Any high performance programme that has a limited range of playing experience will suffer compared to a similar one that offers more high standard competition. For several decades the international game in France had been suppressed and neglected because of the power of the clubs. When France won the rights to host this year’s World Cup that all changed. Now the French talent identification and elite playing programmes are fully co-ordinated and extremely well organised.
Winning three Under-20 World Cups in a row is no fluke. All three wins were based on developing superior game speed. At the senior level teams that are creating high game speed, like New Zealand, Ireland and France seem certain to prosper.
Of these three excellent teams, the one that can create the most sustained high intensity game speed under the greatest pressure in the key knockout matches will lift the William Webb Ellis Trophy.
Watching that battle will be intoxicating, dramatic and unpredictable. Which is everything that we could want our World Cup to be.