Matt Williams: Attacking teams bringing rugby out of the dark ages

Too many laws reward negative sides who focus on penalties rather than ball in hand

France and New Zealand are two of the most penalised teams but also two of the best to watch with ball in hand. Photograph:  Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

France and New Zealand are two of the most penalised teams but also two of the best to watch with ball in hand. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

 

Over the past few months, a renaissance of entertaining, attacking rugby has erupted. An enlightenment, emerging from rugby’s dark ages.

Sir Isaac Newton told us that “to any action, there is always an opposite and equal reaction”. So after the Lions tour, which was the zenith of rugby’s dark age, the coaches and players in New Zealand reacted by embracing a high tempo, skill based game. A fast, entertaining and inspirational style of play.

Across the Tasman ‘ditch’, the Wallabies’ reaction was to return to their traditional running game. While in the north, French rugby rediscovered its soul and once again is played with gorgeous Gallic panache. Over Autumn, Ireland joined the ranks of the enlightened with inspirational running rugby, leaving their box kicking heresy in the regrettable past.

The root cause of rugby’s dark age was coaches creating negative tactics that exploited the laws and how they are being refereed

Today New Zealand, France, Scotland, Australia and Ireland have committed to the enlightenment of a ball in hand, running game. While Wales, South Africa, Argentina and England have been forced into playing a more positive game plan, they are not yet fully committed to the enlightenment.

A powerful statistic to gauge a teams’ positivity is the number of offloads they produce. Across the November internationals, New Zealand led the resurgence with a staggering 70 post contact passes, followed by Australia with 33 and Ireland on 31. While the recalcitrant English created only 18 and the Boks a grumpy 11.

Caution is required here as rugby’s attacking renaissance should not lull us into believing that all is rosy in rugby land. Far from it.

The root cause of rugby’s dark age was coaches creating negative tactics that exploited the laws and how they are being refereed. Dark age tactics do not want the ball. Page one of the dark age playbook says: “The more you play, the more you open yourself up to penalties. The more you kick the ball away, the fewer penalties you give away.”

So teams kicked possession away and won games on the back of turnover penalties and the ridiculous overvaluing our game has placed on penalty goals. These penalties are provided in abundance from page after mind numbing page of technicalities in rugby’s law book.

The horrid tactics produced on the Lions tour are based on this thinking. Sadly, November’s statistics reinforce the dark truth that positive teams who keep the ball in hand are the most penalised.

New Zealand were hit with a whopping 75 penalties, while Australia got smacked 65 times. Compare this to the kings of negativity from South Africa, who only copped 31 and England 36.

The trend suggests that the enlightened, who aim to speed the game up and keep the ball in play for longer periods, are also the most penalised.

This is backed up by the number of times teams are turned over while in possession. No surprise who is at the top of the list - New Zealand with 65 and Australia on 45. Compared to our negative mates South Africa with only 20 turnovers and England 30.

For more than a century in international rugby, a sending off was an exceptionally rare event. Not anymore. In November across the top 24 international teams we had an unimaginable 36 red cards issued. This frequency of dismissal has no historic precedent in rugby.

Referees are, quite rightly, focusing on player safety but with so many red cards being issued the sanction imposed on teams, which is to carry on with a man down, is no longer fit for purpose. Just ask Wallaby Rob Valetini who was red carded after only 15 minutes in an awful but obviously accidental head clash with Welshman Adam Beard.

How we award points is also malfunctioning. A rare and beautiful multi-pass French try gains only five points. Compared to a prop, who slips on a scrum engagement, so his team can be punished by giving away three points.

Rugby is also the only ball game on the planet where a player who tries to intercept a pass and fails faces a 10 minute suspension and giving away three points or worse. All outrageous, outdated, unjust and unfit for purpose.

What makes the excessive number of laws even more disruptive is that our referee post-match performance evaluations and ratings are downgraded if they do not whistle every technical infringement that occurred.

This is why we are getting astronomically high penalty counts, such as last week’s match between Ulster and Leinster that produced 34 penalties. Disruptive referees are promoted while referees who allow games to flow are downgraded.

Here lies rugby’s great disconnect. There are too many laws. The referees are told to enforce every minor infringement of those laws. This leads to huge amounts of time wasting and stoppages.

The summer’s Lions tour was the zenith of a dark period for the game. Photograph: Getty Images
The summer’s Lions tour was the zenith of a dark period for the game. Photograph: Getty Images

To get around these laws and the referees, dark age tactics are employed and negative games like the Lions tests are produced. The paying public, who want entertainment, are robbed of time and quality play. Players and coaches who design positive game plans are denied the time and opportunity to play ball in hand, running, entertaining rugby.

All the groups are searching for different outcomes and currently it is only the individual referee who penalises every minor infringement who is succeeding and being rewarded. This is the worst possible outcome for the game.

Here is the proof. The ball in play statistics from the Autumn Internationals should shock and outrage us all. Ireland had the highest single match percentage with the ball in play 36.95 per cent of the 80 minutes. In other words, the game was stopped 63.05 per cent of the time. And that’s the best!

In one Wallaby match, the ball was in play only 28.3 per cent of the 80 minutes. So for 71.7 per cent of the game, there was nothing. Both Ireland’s best and Australia’s worst are totally unacceptable numbers.

Image going to an NBA game and for three quarters, the players are just standing on the court doing nothing. That is what our laws and officiating are forcing on rugby.

So when Ireland and France meet in next year’s Six Nations, potentially one of the Championship’s most entertaining matches, we can expect around 26 penalties. Dump on top of that time lost for the average 12 scrums and we, the paying public, are being robbed of what we pay for. Which is to see great players like Sexton, Dupont, Ntamack and Henshaw get the ball in their hand and run.

We are at a flexion point in our game. Brave coaches and players are trying to lead us out of a dark age. The laws and officiating are driving us back.

Leadership from World Rugby will determine if this autumn was the birth of a renaissance or a transient Arab Spring.

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