Monday 22 January 2018

Brent Pope: Rugby needs to reward virtues of skill and speed

Garry Ringrose, Ireland, breaks through against England. U20's Six Nations Rugby Championship
Garry Ringrose, Ireland, breaks through against England. U20's Six Nations Rugby Championship

Years ago, before the advent of professionalism, Irish rugby players turned up for international matches a week before the match and coaches had just a couple of training sessions to try and implement a winning game plan.

For years it was often joked about in New Zealand rugby that the only game-plan for the All Blacks in the 90's was just to get the ball to their herculean winger Jonah Lomu, and he would do the rest. While that was a simplistic view, it was probably not that far from reality.

The game has moved on. Rugby is now a game unfortunately overly dominated by line speed, physicality and rushed defences.

What has impressed me most about this Irish team under Joe Schmidt is that every player from 1-23 seems to know their role. Last weekend we saw players like No 8 Jordi Murphy and replacement flanker Tommy O'Donnell fit seamlessly into what Schmidt was trying to do.

Prior to last weekend's match many, including myself, thought that Ireland's scrum would struggle against one of the better scrummaging units in the world.

But Greg Feek and Simon Easterby, Ireland's scrum coach and forwards coach respectively, did a magnificent job in a week, not only allowing Ireland's cockpit to compete, but also to dominate. It was some turnaround following the last 30 minutes against France.

Sometimes the front row club do not get the accolades they deserve, but on this occasion they were more than responsible for Ireland's win. Each Irish player has a specific role to play, not just a primary one, i.e. what they do when they first join the ruck or make a tackle but a secondary responsibility as well.

Irish players are not only clearing out rucks or counter-rucking, they know that the next man is aware of his secondary role. It is almost automatic now, but in many ways it is also straight from the training ground.

headless chickens

Gone are the days of players running around like headless chickens with no thought of what they are doing or where they should be. Adherence to these secondary roles is a feature of all Schmidt's teams.

Even in the lineout this superior organisation was evident last week. In one particular lineout close to their own line, Devin Toner knew that England would try and throw to the tail. He simply moved back a few places and English hooker Dylan Hartley did not have the sense to avoid the arms of the 6ft 10 inch lock - secondary role, rugby intelligence.

This game was won in the top two inches, a superior mental approach to the game. Against France Johnny Sexton used both sides of the field from all the restarts, Ireland knew that their taller backline could win the ball back from the often unutilised side of the field.

Ireland are not perfect, and the worry against the better teams in the World Cup will be a lack of a cutting edge in the middle of the park.

Robbie Henshaw's try was fantastic in its execution, but relied mostly on Connor Murray's pinpoint kick and the big Connacht man's skills.

Ireland still need to find more significant line breaks, especially when a kicking game against say an All Black or Australian back three may not work as well. (Remember the All Blacks score a lot of tries from their potent counter attack).

On Friday night I watched the Irish under 20s play England, and despite their brave loss I witnessed a display of maturity and skill from UCD's young centre, Garry Ringrose. It prompted me to think that he may just be a bolter for the World Cup.


Ringrose is still developing physically, and his lack of bulk may rule him out this year, but he and others like him have to be the future of the game. In my opinion the game of rugby has to go back to the attributes of skill, speed and appreciation of space, and Ringrose's display had all these hallmarks to it, effortlessly gliding outside his bulkier English opposites, using the ball in two hands and employing old fashioned skills such as the dummy and deft passing.

In a modern Welsh backline that contains giants like George North and Jamie Roberts, it's hard to see where a player like the great pint-sized winger Shane Williams (still Wales' leading try-scorer) would fit in.

More's the pity in a game that seems to have now gone for brawn over brains, the same way American football went. Young skilful players are leaving the game in droves because they feel they will never be big enough. Parents around the world are wondering whether the game has become too dangerous for their children to play it.

The game has to have a place for the core values of skill and speed. Touch judges need to enforce the offside line far more efficiently than they are doing at the moment - it is almost an advantage not to have the ball such is the current lack of space in the game.

Week after week we see backlines creeping up in defence, well in advance of the last man's feet, yet nothing is being policed. Surely the touch judges can flag players offside more often than they are doing? When was the last time a touch judge stepped in and made sure the defending team was onside?

I can't be the only one that sees players sneaking up a few crucial metres every time the referee looks the other way.

Let us start to reward the team with the ball, the team making the play- reward attack more than defence. I still want to believe that in a game I love, players with skill and speed such as young Ringrose and others can still prosper.

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