Saturday’s Champions Cup final proved a far better game than anticipated in advance.
Drew Mitchell’s outstanding solo try, which secured a historic three in a row for Toulon, was worthy of delivering silverware. It will be interesting to see if that piece of individual brilliance will win him a recall to the Wallaby World Cup squad, given that he satisfies the new 60-cap, seven-year ARU contract requirements.
Overall however, as another season draws to a close with only the domestic prizes left on offer to a chosen few, my overriding feeling of a campaign that produced more than its fair share of dross encounters at all levels is that something needs to be done to improve the attacking element of the game.
Rather than moan about it, give consideration to changes you would like to see. I will kick off the debate with two to ponder.
1. Do we really need eight substitutions over an 80-minute game?
The substitution law in rugby has gone from one extreme to the other. When I first played, change was only allowed due to injury and even then, it was restricted to two alterations.
You could nominate five substitutes for the bench but once the two injury-enforced changes were made, the remaining three knew they had no chance of seeing any game time, even in the event of further injury.
Over the last 20 years, we have somehow travelled from that less-than-satisfactory situation to a scenario where eight changes are now allowed. Many sides opt for a six/two split between forwards and backs which enables a coach to replace 75% of his starting forward unit over the course of the game.
In the not-too-distant past, the stronger side usually prevailed in the final quarter as the pressure exerted in the opening 60 minutes took its toll on a brave but inferior team. Now with fresh legs available to shore up every area of the field, that is no longer the case. On the flip side, big spending clubs like Toulon can pack their bench with seasoned internationals enabling them to swamp the opposition with even more quality to close out the game. Take your pick as to which is worse.
The necessity on health and safety grounds to shore up the front row with specialist replacements at tight and loose head prop along with hooker has added to the bench requirement but something needs to be done.
I would suggest allowing a maximum of five replacements from the eight named. It would be even better if only three were allowed on tactical grounds but that may be too radical and would encourage feigned injuries. So many changes are preordained these days that alterations have become robotic. In addition, the final quarter of so many games is destroyed by a never-ending sequence of substitutions. People lose interest.
Reducing the number of substitutions could also remove the option of carrying what I call “the 30-minute player” on the bench. The facility to make so many changes up front means, for example, that France had the capacity to introduce the likes of Uini Atonio and Romain Taofifenua — a pair of behemoths carrying 45 stone between them — coming into the final quarter of a pulverising battle. And people wonder why there are so many concussions in the modern game.
My point is that players like Antonio and Taofifenua, who didn’t even make the bench for Toulon in their semi-final win over Leinster despite the presence of the ageing Bakkies Botha or Ali Williams, are too big and bulky to last a full 80 minute contest.
Yet the fact so many substitutions are allowed means that they can be carried and sprung off the bench with the capacity to inflict serious damage on an opposition player who has beavered away from the outset. Reduce the number of substitutions and the management will have to make a serious call on how best to utilise their resources.
A full replacement front row could still be accommodated on the bench but more mobile props like Cian Healy, Dave Kilcoyne, James Cronin and Jack McGrath, who all have the aerobic capacity to last a full game, would become more the norm rather than the exception. How many front rowers play a full match anymore?
The bottom line is eight changes is too much. After all how many field sports facilitate changing over 50% of the starting lineup?
2. Revive the art of rucking
The biggest challenge for a side looking to attack with ball in hand is to improve the speed of their recycle at the breakdown. The flip side is that most teams spend an inordinate time working on how to slow opposition ball at the ruck in order to set their defensive line, a quality that has become the stock-in-trade for quality back rowers such as Richie McCaw, David Pocock and Michael Hooper.
Generating a turnover or managing to legally slow opposition ball is an art form and deserves encouragement. However teams that stifle a contest by applying foul means deserve to be punished. The problem here is it requires a strict and consistent application of the law by referees. Unfortunately that isn’t always the case in an area where there are so many infringements to look out for. When rucking was an art form, the breakdown was almost self-policing. The problem now is that if a player places his boot on any part of the opposition he, more often than not, is the one penalised.
Referees should be encouraged to allow proper rucking to clear out the loiterer — not stamping but a backward motion to clear out stragglers. The breakdown has become a mass pile-up of bodies. The art of rucking, as perfected by New Zealand and Scotland over 30 years ago, needs to be facilitated.
After several encounters against the All Blacks as a player and coach, Jim Telfer became a devoted follower of the art of rucking as it enabled his lighter Scottish forwards produce quicker ball for a talented back line. Quick ruck ball remains the key to quality attacking play and Telfer beasted his players in training to achieve that goal.
I can still recall one of those punishing rituals in Dunedin on the 1983 Lions tour with Telfer’s cry of “go lower, go lower” ringing in our ears long after the session ended. I still retain images of infuriated Irish flanker John O’Driscoll — not a pretty sight — on his hands and knees on the beach adjacent to that training paddock after the session, using his elbow to dig a hole in the sand as he roared “go lower, go lower” while venting his frustrations at Telfer’s training methods.
Some coaches set up low strung nets in order to achieve the perfect body position. Approaching the net at pace, you grabbed a teammates jersey and hit in pairs at a body height that meant you had to clear out under a net set up only a few feet off the ground.
Some less sophisticated coaches used a long stick under which you had to clear. If your body position was too high, you would get a whack on the back for your troubles. The key was forwards arriving in unison and clearing out beyond the ball. Applied properly it was incredibly effective and enabled Scotland to punch way beyond their weight for years.
The downside was it facilitated the illegal use of the boot, especially as there was nothing like the number of television cameras covering the game that exist now. I remember Ollie Campbell being filleted by a French pack in Paris without any protection from the officials. Inevitably that led to a reaction and a reciprocal response from the Irish pack. It was mayhem.
However with an average of 11 cameras in operation, an independent citing officer, a wired-up team of officials and a TMO, the modern game is so well policed that the bootboys who stamp or lead with the boot should be immediately spotted and punished.
Using the boot in a backward motion to clear out loitering bodies is acceptable and will ensure that opposition players will make a far greater effort to get out of the way quickly or suffer the consequences. The net result should be quicker ball and a better attacking platform. A bit of proper shoeing never did anyone any harm.
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