There have been many commentators since the Rugby World Cup last year that have pointed to how the northern hemisphere rugby teams are lagging behind their southern counterparts. The latest article of note - courtesy of BBC writer Ben Dirs - was thought-provoking.
It’s undoubted that the southern hemisphere sides were dominant at the RWC last year. The proof of this being that they took up each of the semi-final places. Not even a look-in for those of the top half of the globe, even in conditions supposedly more familiar to them.
The southern boys deserved their positions too, with smooth progress for each of them through the group and quarter-final stages, barring perhaps the brave effort by the Scots against the Aussies.
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However, it borders on the impossible for a coach such as the latest England Head Coach Eddie Jones, to come in and fundamentally shake up the status quo. One could argue in the case of English rugby, that there’s a heavy case for the blame to be laid at the door of Bath Rugby and their performance at last season’s Aviva Premiership Final.
Although putting the blame squarely on the shoulders of one club may seem unfair, the case for the prosecution is as follows: Ultimately – running rugby failed. Last season, Bath were the key proponents of the exciting running game – as is so evident in the Southern Hemisphere Super 14 and international levels – attacking from all areas, offloading in contact for continuity and fast ball, running defences ragged.
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However the ability to score tries through talented runners and ball-handlers was cut to shreds by the ruthless hunters of Saracens' ‘Wolf-pack’. Bath tried time and again to go through their phases, employing the offloading skills of forwards and backs, their ‘pod’ approach to attack and the swift feet of midfield players George Ford, Kyle Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph, to say nothing of the pace of their back three (discounting the early injury to Anthony Watson). All to no avail.
As it was, a miserly defence who ignored the dummy runners to drift across the field to pin the attackers down meant Saracens pressured Bath into mistakes and their poacher’s ability and kicking game won through. (This simplistic summary does not do fair diligence to Sarries’ attacking ability, but is an approximate precis of the action).
Stuart Lancaster, seeing the practicalities of brawn over brain and endeavour over evasion thought twice about his tactics of attack for England, as the thorny defence had won through – he would use Brad Barritt (outstanding on the day) as the cornerstone of his backline defence when Lancaster feared an attacking threat from opponents.
The more attacking minded, though smaller stature of Kyle Eastmond was jettisoned; Sam Burgess, having been employed by Bath on the flank, was instead trusted in the centre berth and we all know what happened next. It’s been picked at ad nauseam but it’s worth looking at this ‘Sliding Doors’ moment a little further.
Had Bath won on the day, we may well have seen a more attacking intent from England, even if Eastmond wasn’t the man to go forward – the instincts of George Ford may have been trusted a little further and some of the threat shown by the final game of the Six Nations to the talented runners in the UK may have had more of a chance for an airing.
As it was, England withdrew into their shells. Gone was the attacking focus in key games (with all due respect to the Fijians and Uruguayans, their challenges weren’t up to the task to test the mettle fully) and ultimately an untimely exit from a home World Cup condemned England’s coach, skipper and a number of senior players to look for other lines of employment.
Of course, there are far more pressures, subtleties and nuances to add to the pot of reason in terms of why England, in particular, played as they did during that World Cup. There is no doubt too on the focus the Northern Hemisphere makes on piling pressure on opposition teams to give away penalties and kick their way to victory. Hell, what was good enough for Clive Woodward’s 2003 charges surely will suffice now?
Obviously it’s not, though it seems a pure running game isn’t quite the answer either – the home nations have to build a culture of skill before they can look to consistently challenge the likes of the Kiwis at international level. Again, to call Woodward’s team just a kicking team is unfair, though they did have the ultimate weapon in their arsenal in the guise of Jonny Wilkinson, but to a certain extent, international coaches need to start putting faith in their players' talent to show what they can do.
Looking at the experience for the Welsh, Irish and Scottish – similarly, their focus on defence overrode their dedication to attack their opponents to the detriment of their ability to score
The traditionally free flowing Welsh backline was unable to cross the Australian whitewash in their pool game when Australia had two players in the sin-bin at almost the same time. Ireland, their challenge unhinged by injuries to key players, found their choke-tackle approach unpicked by the rampant Argentinians.
Scotland too perhaps looked to tighten up rather than have their danger runners cut loose, though their challenge lasted much further into the tournament so can count themselves unlucky.
That said, can this Six Nations prove to be the championship that is the beginning of a new period of attacking European rugby? From the experience of the first round, you might think otherwise –
Wales and Ireland unable to break the deadlock in their arm-wrestle of a game and England hardly impressing against the Scots.
Much like cup-final matches – each of the Six Nations fixtures is a nervy affair – though surely that should be embraced as the truest reflection of a World Cup match and therefore a great opportunity to test the attitude of a team hoping to challenge the Southern Hemisphere teams on the world stage, than used as an excuse to present ‘victory at all costs’.