The best offense is a good defense.
by Yue-Houng Hu and Victor Drover
Much has been made of the Stellenbosch Experimental Law Variations (ELVs) which last week were given preliminary approval by the IRB to be more widely circulated and analyzed for further approval on 1 May 2008.
The IRB Council last week approved the ‘experimental law variations’ (ELVs) be circulated to all unions and returned with comments by January/February. The council will then vote on 1 May whether or not to bring them into worldwide rugby for a year’s trial. South Africa, Australia and New Zealand have also been asked to trial them in the Super 14.
The ELVs remain controversial as they amount to a revolution in the way rugby is played. Aimed to render rugby faster, more exciting, and simpler for both fans and officials, it is clear that the IRB is attempting to create a more ‘viewer friendly’ sport. What is not apparent is the dirty little secret exposed by the proposed law changes:
rugby as we know it, may be dying.
We all know rugby to be a great sport. There’s a reason why we love it, why we play it, why we pore obsessively over details. North Americans who are drawn to the sport are often enamored with its physicality and perceived brutality. What they often don’t realize is that rugby, at its best, is a sport of incredible intelligence, creativity, beauty and grace. Not all of us in Canada and the USA realize this aspect of the game. Rather, many North Americans extol the virtues of ‘smash mouth’ rugby and of physical dominance. Not enough of us celebrate the moments of sublime inspiration, the moments of unthinkable beauty. To deny the cerebral portion of the game is to deny at least half of what is important about the game and to deny the great majority of why it can be such an incredible sport to watch.
Held every four years, the Rugby World Cup is the pinnacle of the sport, the most prestigious and sought after prize. On the world stage it is surpassed only by the Football World Cup and the Summer Olympics. Under the intense spotlight cast by such events, we’ve begun to see the strategies that are leading to victory. As we progress through the knockout rounds of the tournament, teams are becoming increasingly conservative. What we are left with in the championship match is England and South Africa, the two most cautious teams amongst the major rugby playing nations in the world.
Of the four semifinalists at this years 2007 Rugby World Cup, was there one team on either pitch playing ‘constructive’ rugby, the type of calculated and inspired rugby that leads to tries? There were perhaps one or two creative tries in either semifinal, although this is debatable. In any case, the overwhelming majority of the points were scored through penalties and intercept tries. Clearly, teams are not playing constructive rugby. They are not creating scoring opportunities or venturing to great lengths to score tries. Rather, they seem content to play a game of advantage, endlessly kicking to the other team in hopes of gaining favorable field position.
The strategy is simply dictating play in opposition territory and waiting (yes, waiting!) for a penalty. Should one not come, these elite teams are content to attempt hopelessly dull and surprisingly low-percentage drop goals. They are satisfied with pushing the score card over three points at a time and hoping for the occasional opportunistic or intercept try. The only variation is seen when a series of high bombs and up-and-unders are employed to prey on the mistakes of the back three defenders.
Importantly, this strategy is not an aberration of the 2007 championship. At the international level and in the professional leagues, we are seeing a dearth of flair and spontaneity in favor of this unproductive, uncreative and overly cautious play featuring high-percentage set-pieces and territorial kicking. The few teams who have qualified for the Semi Finals while playing constructive rugby (Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji) have been unceremoniously bounced.
Even the French, renowned (but deservedly so?) for their unpredictable, free-flowing game, abandoned their traditional style for the Semi Final in favor of what can only be described as ‘decidedly English’. French coach Benard Laporte chose a tactical kicking game with the huge boot of Damien Traille out of position at fullback and Lionel Beauxis at fly half. Of course, these decisions were at the expense of the awe-inspiring (although admittedly riskier) Clement Poitrenaud and Frederik Michalak. By using this strategy, Laporte all but admitted that the traditional French game with its intrinsic risks would render ultimate victory impossible. The real shame is that despite the change in tactics, France was still unable to defeat England at their own game.
This trend in overly cautious play is not based simply on opinion and conjecture. Fans and critics are urgently aware that England reached the final of the 2007 Rugby World Cup by scoring just one try in three of their matches against major opponents (South Africa, Australia, France). Historical data also supports the argument that the professional era has stifled an open and creative rugby style. In the knock-out stages of the World Cup prior to the professional era (circa 1995), the World Cup champions scored more points from tries compared to the runner-up (Figure 1). After the professional era, we see a sudden switch as team scoring more tries is handed a loss for their efforts.
How then are the modern World Cup champions scoring enough points to defeat an opponent who is scoring more tries? If one compares total points scored from penalties and tries during the knock-out stages of the first 5 rugby World Cup championships (raw data, PDF), the answer is clear. The professional era marks a shift in scoring trends which favors penalties (Figure 2). The data from the 2007 Rugby World Cup (not shown) do not follow this trend due to teams like Fiji and Argentina being heavily outmatched in the Semi Finals and Quarter Finals. However, it cannot be denied that in the 2007 Final, both England and South Africa presented vigorous and courageous defense but little in the way of attack with all 21 points scored from penalty kicks. Much to the dismay of the fans who were exhilarated by the pool stage matches, the majority of attacking sequences in the Final were spent kicking the ball away for positional advantage.
It seems that the only way to win the World Cup and other professional rugby leagues is to shelve the creativity and spirit of the elite players. International and professional teams are better able and better resourced (both in manpower and funding) to analyze their opponents and to create impenetrable walls of defense. Could this wealth of resource be used in reverse to stimulate creative attack? Of course. But building a defensive system is always going to be easier and faster than cultivating creativity and decision making, the latter of which is perhaps the most difficult rugby skill to teach and to learn.
The implications of the ‘success’ of an overly cautious rugby style could well be catastrophic at the elite level of the sport. Success breeds imitation and replication. We may soon witness an influx of teams playing simply to not lose or concede points of any kind. France used this strategy to defeat New Zealand in the 2007 Quarter Finals by defending not less than two Kiwi attacking sequences with greater than 20 consecutive phases of possession.
The Stellenbosch Experimental Laws may not be the answer. They may not cure the epidemic of cautious, defensive rugby. However, they are at least a step towards righting the ship of rugby which has gone astray, tossed around by the waves of pressure exerted by the professional sport industry. The proposed changes strive to return rugby to its roots: a game simultaneously of great physicality and conflict as well as intelligence and supreme inspiration.
The hope is that the ELVs will force teams to go for the try and not the line-out/maul or penalty kick. If the players, fans and corporate sponsors appreciate this more than the current rugby union style, then the IRB will have achieved a holy trinity of support for the game and perhaps even spark a golden age for the sport.