Being an avid Munster and Irish Rugby supporter, I am unhappy with the changing style of rugby now being played particularly in the Northern Hemisphere in both the H/Cup and Six Nations competitions. Core skills are now being neglected, passing, creative back play are being replaced by players inflicting blunt force trauma on each other. Size matters, skill not so much.
The Ever Evolving Game
Rugby has come a long way since the game went professional back in the nineties. Diet, gym work and human development are changing the shape and size of players. Some really great rule changes have made the game a better spectacle, such as lifting in the line-out. The changes to the scrum has improved the continuity of the game, if you look at a game from the late eighties you will be surprised by the changes, changes for the better.
Blunt Force Trauma Merchants (BFTM)
While in Thomond Park on Saturday to watch the quarter final of the H/Cup match between Munster and Toulouse I was taken by the size of some of the French club’s players. The sheer size of these guys now means the strategy of rugby coaches is to create miss-matches where possible by getting the “big units” running at/over a smaller player, more NFL than rugby, not much skill needed. The game was always a physical test but with many facets and skills to compliment that physical aspect. The beauty of rugby was all shapes and sizes could play, tall guys, small guys, fat guys and skinny guys. The tall guys became second rows, fat guys played in the front row, skinny and small skillful guys played in the backs. The forwards won matches, the backs dictated by how much.
We now have the spectacle of a fat guy playing as outside center Mathieu Bastareaud of the France and Toulon teams, tipping the scales at 120 kilos, 19 stones in old money, the same weight as John “The Bull” Hayes. Compare that to Brian O’Driscoll weighting in at 93 kilos, nearly 15 stones, Gordon Darcy 91 kilos, 14.5 stones, Matt Giteau 85 kilos, just over 13.5 stones. What have these players got in common, they can pass the ball and create space for those outside them in doing so. Passing the ball is a basic rugby skill you might think, well look at the centers playing rugby in the final stages of the H/cup and in the Six Nations, excluding those centers named above, the rest are blunt force trauma merchants, none of them possess a range of passing skills, never mind knowing how to drift off their opposite number so they could go around them.
Passing a “Key Skill”
When Joe Schmidt took over at Leinster Rugby in 2010 he declared that his number one objective was to make Leinster the best passing team in Europe. He did and Leinster reached 6 finals and won four trophies in his time as head coach. By focusing on the skill of passing the ball Schmidt made Leinster almost unplayable at times, they became the Barcelona of rugby. As a Munster supporter I can testify to this as we found it very difficult to beat Leinster during those 3 years he was in charge of the boys in blue. He also did this with the players at his disposal, Irish men are not as big as the South Seas Islanders now so fashionable in French and English rugby.
While watching last years H/Cup final between Toulon and Clermont Avergne I was taken by the fact that Clermont largely outplayed Toulon on the day but bad passing meant that scoring opportunities created by Clermont went unconverted. Passing skills or a lack of them cost Clermont the H/Cup their fans so desperately deserve. This passing skills issue is one that Munster suffer from as well and Leinster have slipped back into old habits now that Joe coaches Ireland.
If you look at the centers left in the H/Cup only Matt Giteau has a complete passing game. Casey Laulala of Munster can pass but rarely does, the rest are “Blunt Force Trauma Merchants”. We are also now applauding the wrong skill sets, defense, the game is about creating space not flooding the space and isolating the guy lying on the ground so your player can lean in and stop him from re-cycling the ball. This is now getting as much reaction from players, crowds and commentators as scores, it is mad s**t. Whats worse about this is the defending player is now kneeling on the prostrate player in possession, not supporting his own body weight, as is the rule and not getting penalised.
Concussion will change the way the game is played
It is very much in the interest of the game that the IRB look at the current developments with the concussion issue. The BFTM’s are inflicting serious injury’s on fellow players, Johnny Sexton was stretchered off against France when he tried to go high when tackling Mathieu Bastareaud and suffered concussion. Luke Marshall has suffered 4 concussions in under 12 months not all at the hands of BFTM’s it must be said. Legal issues will force change, as it is doing in the NFL in America, the rule changes could be taken out of the IRB’s hands. There are some measures now in place around concussion but players are still getting back onto the pitch despite the best efforts of the medics.
Power and pace allied with the correct skill set will lead to a winning side as Leinster under Joe proved. Human begins and rugby will develop and change but skills such as passing have to be encouraged. It is easier to coach defense then it is creativity, see Irish soccer under Big Jack, compare that to what Joe did with Leinster or Pep Guardiola did at Barca. Passing and movement not long ball or Blunt Force Trauma Merchants. Watch the All Blacks they combine power and skill, that is why they are consistently the best team in the world. Could we match them if we could combine those two attributes. It wasn’t power that beat Ireland last year against the All Blacks, it was skill…..