Rugy must become more of an attacking spectacle - not a kick fest
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OPINION: Everyone is asking at the minute why there is so much kicking in rugby union.
Well, here is a raw statistic for you: teams of about the same ability, that kick the ball more than their opponents, win around 75% of their games.
Forget about how a team kicks, whether it is for territory or to turn defences or put pressure on from line-outs. When you boil it all down, if you kick more times in a game, you tend to win more than you lose.
It is a no-brainer. If you are a head coach who is paid to win test matches, you can see the temptation to opt for a game plan that results in three wins from four on average.
Look at the opening game of this Rugby World Cup. France alone kicked the ball on 44 occasions. That is more than the total average kicks per game during the 2011 and 2015 World Cups. The All Blacks kicked the ball 39 times, making a total of 83 kicks. And that is from two of the most skilful sides in the world. As a game we need to be looking at ourselves if we are going to make it more entertaining.
Across the eight games of the opening round, there was an average of 56.9 kicks per game, the highest total since the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. Our game against Fiji had the lowest total of kicks – 41 – but we kicked slightly more possession than they did (24-17) and won the game.
Against Fiji we at least attempted to play with a higher tempo and more ball-in-play time. That’s what we are looking for. We feel we are in good shape physically and want to take teams to a pretty dark place and if we are hurting, hopefully they are hurting a little bit more.
The positive for us was the result, the negative was the last 13 minutes where we had a comfortable lead but then came under a lot of pressure. That is something for me to address. If you go back to last autumn, Wales were comfortably winning against Australia but then imploded. Similarly, the game against England at Twickenham, we should have won but failed to execute in the last quarter.
Against Fiji, we were leading 32-14 but could have lost the game in the final minute. Is that technical or psychological? That is the issue I am addressing with the squad this week. We as coaches need to make sure that the messaging we are giving players is clear and collective and that they communicate with each other on the field to make good decisions when under pressure.
For a coach it wasn’t the worst thing to happen because if we had won comfortably, we would have been patting ourselves on the back. Instead, we were exposed in those final minutes. Fiji kept playing and we should have been more frontline defensively. So as much as we are delighted with the result, we know that there are some underlying issues for us to work through and focus on.
The dominance of kicking in the game stems from the fact that there is currently a really fine balance between attack and defence in terms of risk and reward and sometimes the advantage is not to have the ball because defences are so well organised.
When the attacking team gets rewarded for being able to play, they have more confidence to play from deeper and move the ball. When defence is more dominant, or has more reward, the balance changes and then teams end up playing much more of a territory game and kicking from inside their own half up until around the halfway line.
And at the moment the game is defence-focused. Teams are not prepared to play in their own territory, or take the risk of playing for two, three or four phases and then conceding a penalty, which is kicked into your 22 and you are potentially under pressure for four or five minutes.
I posed this question to our squad a couple of months ago. What is the best result – conceding a penalty for holding on or letting the ball go and conceding the turnover?
We had a robust debate, and I got our analysts to look at the stats. Surprisingly, the best option suggests it is better to let the ball go and not give away a penalty by holding on in the contest for the ball.
The numbers revealed that if you concede a penalty inside your own half, then, on average, you don’t get the ball back for just over five minutes. In contrast, if you let the ball go and the opposition make a clean jackal, then you will likely get the ball back in around three minutes.
In the opposition half, if you release the ball and it is turned over, you tend to get the ball back even quicker because teams tend to play for around three phases and then kick it back.
Unfortunately, that is where the game is currently. If a player makes a little half-break and creates a bit of separation from his support, when the tackle is made another player is on top of him and the penalty is conceded for not releasing.
At the moment, the current laws and interpretation are weighted more heavily in favour of defences, which is influencing the decisions that coaches make. I would like more of a move towards the attack – and the consequence would be fewer kicks.
Rugby is such a complicated game and has so many different laws and that’s why football and rugby league are more simple games to understand in terms of the TV spectacle. I can understand why people watching rugby for the first time are confused and ask: ‘What is that penalty for? What was that decision for?’
I’m not sure what the answer is to that, but I think there is a responsibility on us to improve the spectacle. How do we make sure that we’re an entertainment game, that we’re growing the sport and that people enjoy watching for the excitement that it creates.
But that is another debate. International coaches are under so much pressure to win games that it is not about entertainment, it is about winning. The consequences of losing are criticism and ultimately people losing their jobs.
It has not yet come to the situation as in football when a manager can be sacked at the start of a season for losing the first three or four games. In rugby union, employers tend to be more forgiving in terms of giving head coaches more time. However, I can see a situation going forward, as the demand for results gets more and more, where we could end up going down the football path.
You see it in football all the time when a player is tackled and goes to the ground, feigning injury in order to milk a penalty. Unfortunately, rugby is definitely heading that way. I am already seeing in the game that if there are high tackles or any head contact, not initially picked up by the officials, that players are staying down. This then allows the TMO time to review the incident while the player’s being treated, sometimes resulting in a penalty, yellow or red card.