Matt Williams: Wallabies win was one for the good guys in the battle for rugby’s soul

Springboks are butchering our beautiful game but running rugby is fighting back

Quade Cooper starred as the Wallabies beat the world champions. Photograph: Patrick Hamilton/Getty/AFP

Quade Cooper starred as the Wallabies beat the world champions. Photograph: Patrick Hamilton/Getty/AFP

 

Barry John was the greatest Welsh outhalf of the 1960s and 70s. He was the most mesmeric attacking player of his generation.

The images of his awesome running skills, carrying the ball in two hands jinking and stepping off either foot, sliding past defenders on the winning 1971 Lions tour of New Zealand, remain breathtaking to watch.

Barry John also provided the game ‘they play in heaven’ with one of its greatest poetic observations.

“The way a man plays rugby is a direct reflection of his soul.” Barry John.

To a rugby genius, such as Barry John, in those precious seconds when a player grasps the ball, the character of that individual and their team is revealed. We glance through a portal into their true spirit. As the saying goes, “Rugby does not create character. It reveals character.”

Barry John was also passing on the intergenerational wisdom that across the entire history of rugby, there has been an internal battle for control of the soul of the game. Those who are creative and joyous, against those who are destructive and negative. A contest within the game of light against dark.

Barry John was the most mesmeric attacking player of his generation. Photograph: Getty
Barry John was the most mesmeric attacking player of his generation. Photograph: Getty

Darkness

Over the summer we witnessed the darkness that lurks within rugby. The Lions and Springboks lacked respect, not only for the officials but for how the game itself should be played. The Lions turned their backs on their historical ethos and produced a brutal and deeply saddening series.

While that was the darkness, last weekend there was light.

I have no doubt that the national teams of France, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland (who attacked with precision against England in March) are trying to play positive, creative, ball in hand, running rugby.

Using Barry John’s definition, the rugby soul of these teams has more light than dark. No greater example of ‘light’ than last weekend, when we were privileged to witness the wonders of Beauden Barrett in full flight against Argentina, as he sidestepped past three Puma defenders before delivering an unimaginable, post-contact, reverse, one-handed, 15-metre spiral pass that landed straight into the try scoring mitts of his number eight, Luke Jacobson.

That few seconds of Barrett magic was far more rewarding than viewing the hundreds of Lions and Springboks’ mind numbingly boring, if not downright rugby evil, crossfield and boxkicks.

Sadly, the dark side of the game’s soul can still be seen in the way the current world champions insist on playing. The Springboks are butchering our beautiful game by using three negative principles as the foundation of their game plan.

1) Their rushing defence totally abuses the offside laws, multiple times in every match. The Boks defenders live offside.

2) Their dominating scrum, lineout and maul has zero intention of moving the ball across the backline. South Africa don’t do set play backline attack.

3) The Boks only select copies of Venus de Milo at outhalf. Their outhalves have no hands and simply kick the leather off the ball.

Last week, against an ordinary Wallaby team, Handre Pollard pathologically refused to pass the ball and kicked on almost every occasion. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for a creative player like Damien de Allende to have an international career that encompasses almost nothing except chasing kicks.

These tactics do not reflect well on the rugby soul of the Springboks.

The irony is that if the Springboks Venus de Milo had grown some hands and attacked South Africa would have defeated Australia.

On the other side of the coin, the Wallabies attempted to play a positive, running and passing game. Unlike the Lions, who attacked the Springboks’ strengths, the Wallabies attacked their defensive weakness, which is Faf de Klerk’s position in the defensive line.

Samu Kerevi carries into Eben Etzebeth and Faf de Klerk during Australia’s shock win over South Africa. Photograph: Regi Varghese/EPA
Samu Kerevi carries into Eben Etzebeth and Faf de Klerk during Australia’s shock win over South Africa. Photograph: Regi Varghese/EPA

After forensic pre-game analysis, the Wallabies planned their attacking structure to manipulate De Klerk’s position in the defensive line and force him into the wide channels. Once De Klerk was out wide in the defensive line, Australia attacked him. As he sprinted out of the line to meet the Wallabies, the space around the smaller man was targeted. Andrew Kellaway’s excellent try had its origin in this creative tactic.

Redemption

While the media focused on the redemption of Australian rugby’s anti-hero, the much maligned Quade Cooper, who kicked the winning points, it was the multiple offloading passes from the Wallabies that tormented the Springboks so deeply. The running rugby mindset of the Wallabies created opportunities and Cooper slotted the points.

To put this win into perspective, if a combined Wallabies and Lions team was selected, only Michael Hooper’s name would come up for consideration from the Australians. With inferior individual talent, the Wallabies attacking rugby defeated the world champions.

That message needs to be spread across the globe to all teams of all ages. It is possible to defeat the best by playing a game that is creative, joyous and positive. Up until last Saturday, the dark side of rugby’s soul, that is the brute and the kicker, held dominion over the skilled runner and passer.

Last weekend running rugby fought back.

However, the negativity of the Springboks game plan is stubborn and hard to defeat. Just as in life, negativity is a tough opponent. The Venus de Milo Boks may triumph in Saturday’s rematch. All the more reason for the teams across the planet, who are fighting to play a positive running game to keep the faith.

All of us in the game must make a choice and take aside. It is light versus dark. There can be no fence sitting. It is a fight that must be won for the soul of the game.

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