Matt Williams: In the Champions Cup it’s use it or lose it, attack or perish
Failure to develop skills means some sides are declining rapidly – proof is on the scoreboards
Heineken Champions Cup Round of 16, Thomond Park, Limerick: Munster v Toulouse when the French side’s Antoine Dupont went over for a try. File photograph: Inpho
For all those rugby nihilists, who have been telling us that it is impossible to play entertaining, attacking rugby against today’s defensive systems, last weekend’s brilliant Heineken Cup matches must have been a crushing disappointment.
On the heels of a dynamic Six Nations Championship, last week’s elite European club matches made for sensational viewing and provided rugby lovers with proof that positivity can flourish in the ocean of negativity that has swamped the game in recent times.
The resurgence of so much exciting attack from Europe’s leading teams is creating what is termed “The St Matthew Principle” within rugby.
This concept has its foundations in the words of St Matthew’s Gospel, 25:29, which, to paraphrase, states, “to those who have everything more will be given. To those who have nothing, everything will be taken”.
While we know that St Matthew’s day job was as a tax collector, at first glance this verse reads like the bones of ruthless capitalist Thatcherism. However, a more sympathetic interpretation is, “to those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away”.
Just as businesses that were early adopters of technology advanced more rapidly than their Luddite competitors, teams coached to enhance their attacking skills, such as aggressive footwork prior to contact and offloading, are gaining more success, while those who have failed to develop their attacking skills are now declining even more rapidly.
Proof is on scoreboards right across Europe.
The word has finally reached the streets that rushing defensive systems, like all defensive systems, have weaknesses. At long last coaches are targeting the space behind and between the rushing defenders. And it’s about bloody time as that space has always been there to attack! To achieve this players must be upskilled to exploit the gaps in these overhyped negative defensive frameworks.
The thinking behind the Toulouse attack is perhaps the best example of how coaching is exploiting the space between defenders.
With Antoine Dupont conducting, the Toulouse forwards probe defenders close to the ruck. Time and time again against Munster they used sidestepping, staying on their feet, and strong leg drive to create the smallest of gaps and holes between resisters. The Toulouse forwards might win only a few metres but their aim is not distance. Their objective is to draw defenders in and create fast ruck ball, which empowers Dupont to launch his backs into the wider spaces.
Not even the brilliance of Munster’s first-half tries could cast a shadow over the incredible Dupont. His astonishingly accurate passing, challenging runs and immaculate support lines, combined with his halfback partner Romain Ntamak, created mesmerically entertaining rugby.
There was no shame in Munster’s defeat at the hands of a team who are close to regaining their place as the European powerhouse of old. After a historic win in Limerick, they have the class to follow it with another in Clermont.
While not every team has a player of Dupont’s quality, they can still have a high-quality plan.
In the opening moments of La Rochelle’s attack against Gloucester, their gigantic Australian secondrower, Will Skelton, produced a staccato sidestep, to create the finest of spaces between the defenders. He then drove his enormous body into that small gap, punching his shoulders past the defenders, before delivering a delightful, sympathetic pop pass into the mitts of his charging flanker, Kevin Gourdon, who linked with fullback Dillyn Leyds who touched down for a brilliant try.
Under the thoughtful mentoring of their coach, Ronan O’Gara, La Rochelle have grown into a team looking to attack space created by offloading passes, post contact. We know these skills will destroy rushing defensive systems but they must be taught methodically and practiced. Ultimately, every attacking skill has decision making at its source. Like all skills, decision making must be repeated constantly for it to improve.
Rewarded with success
It is no surprise that under O’Gara’s coaching, La Rochelle’s attacking short kicking game has also flourished. When teams place 14 players in the defensive line, La Rochelle have ruthlessly attacked the acres they leave unguarded behind their line with short recoverable kicks.
At home today against Sale they will be great to watch and hard to beat.
The trend we are witnessing across the Heineken Cup is that the teams that are creatively attacking from set play and using post-contact offloading are being rewarded with success. The French Top 14 clubs have embraced this attack with much more dedication than teams in the English Premiership or the Pro14. That is the basis of why five of the last eight teams in the Heineken Cup are from the Top 14.
From the Pro14, Leinster are the notable exceptions. They have never strayed far from their DNA which is to attack with every weapon in their arsenal. All underlined with the mindset of Barak Obama’s “Yes we can!” That’s why they are amid a winning dynasty and precisely why they can prevail against the behemoths of Exeter at Sandy Park today.
All of these teams playing exciting, attacking rugby is a good thing for the game. Use it or lose it, attack or perish. The St Matthew principle is helping to crumble the foundations of rushing defence.
Long may it continue.