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Wednesday 28 September 2016

Brent Pope: Mindset is the real hurdle we need to clear

Jonathan Sexton breaks away from the tackle of Munster’s Frances Saili to score his side’s try at the Aviva Stadium last Saturday. Pic: Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton breaks away from the tackle of Munster’s Frances Saili to score his side’s try at the Aviva Stadium last Saturday. Pic: Sportsfile

Last week's local derby that saw Leinster scrape home by three points against Munster brought up some issues about the mind-set of the modern game/player. I was amazed, reading some of the papers on Monday morning, that some saw the game as entertaining and free-flowing.

I was wondering if I was at the same game. As always in these matches, the game was intensly physical, and players certainly threw their bodies on the line.

But the entertainment value was due to the closeness of the score at the end of the game, not on the overall quality of attacking play.

In the last few minutes, Munster had plenty of opportunity to score the matchwinner, if they had risked going wider with a couple of passes. Instead, they seemed pre- programmed to keep it tight.

The Munster backline became so narrow that Leinster almost knew they were not prepared to risk it and as a result, Leinster's defence handled the late attacks pretty well, even with 14 men.

I lost count f how many times Munster used a prop as a ball carrier on the short side. The problem is that in such a small space and with due respect to most modern front-rowers, even the most dynamic prop probably does not have the foot speed or ability to beat a man on the outside.

The defending team know that he will simply angle back in away from touch and set up play. We also too often saw both defences fanned out across the field, with the game looking more like rugby league every day.

Ball carriers, forwards and backs, did not really look to off-load, rather to gain inches by confronting the player directly opposite, or running into the nearest defender to make contact.

The referees - and more specifically the touch judges - have a serious role to play here. How is a team with the ball actually able to create any gain-line play or space when the defence is up so flat that the team in possession of the ball are actually going backwards rather than forwards?

I know that teams talk about creating mis-matches in midfield, planning moves flat up on the gain line or using wrap-around plays, but it seems to me that the team with the ball is now at a disadvantage by having to move a considerable distance forward just to make the advantage line. Some defensively based teams now see it as an advantage not to have the ball.

Is this what the game has become? When was the last time we saw a touch judge put out his flag for defenders encroaching behind the referees back? Hardly ever, yet it happens all the time in football, where the offside rule is almost always policed.

Lost count

I have lost count of how many defenders are way offside in games, always stealing space as soon as the referee has his back turned. It's not the referee's fault, he does not have eyes in the back of his head and cannot regulate what he cannot see.

But the game needs to reward the attacking team more and insist that the defenders are on always onside.

The other law that must be examined is the infamous choke tackle, when the opposition defender can hold a player up above the ground in the tackle and win his side the ball back at the resulting scrum.

Again, why is this not open more to the referee's interpretation rather than to the letter of the law? In fairness, some referees seem better than others at giving the correct team the benefit of the doubt, but so often we see a team that has taken a ball into play and has the weight of the pack behind them, the play is moving forward and suddenly slows down and because one defending player has managed to get in and hold another one up for a few seconds his team get the reward of a turnover.

Surely it encourages the defender to go higher than normal in the tackle? Last week we had a citing of strangulation on an international player.

Space was at a premium last Saturday, yet how many players sought to use it?

Huge amounts of space existed just in behind each backline, yet neither backline - apart from a couple of intelligent kicks from Johnny Sexton - were prepared to risk nudging the ball in behind by either a grubber or chip kick.

An effective grubber kick used wisely can remind opposition teams not to come up too fast or too flat. It is also an effective way of being able to move forwards onto the ball.

It is still reasonably hard to go back or come forward on a sliding ball, but the feeling is that teams are not prepared to risk such plays, against teams that are not doing anything with it anyway.

The Super 15s may be a hybrid all-action, hard-ground type of rugby, and I get the criticism that at times it is more likes sevens.

But at least teams have adopted the attitude of taking a few risks, and as long as they score more tries than the opposition they win.

They are not afraid to jab a kick through when defences are flat, are not afraid to use long passes every time there is a turnover and are not afraid to look for space and width.

The problem is not always in execution or being more clinical. It is about mind-set, and players playing what unfolds in front of them, not what they have been taught on the blackboard at training.

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