THE LIAM BOTHAM COLUMN

Bring back ‘speed’ with two-phased attacks

Rugby’s bigwigs are arguing about the style in which our game should be played, something this column has written about at length, our central suggestion being ‘viewer friendliness’ for rugby’s survival in the competitive sports watcher’s market.

To my mind, rugby coaches and their teams around the world are smothering talent by forcing their players to follow a certain style of play – recently, as we’ve seen, the rough-and-tumble power play whereby, in essence, the team with the biggest, fittest forwards will win almost every game.

Players have to fit in, or get out, and their individual skills are being cramped by what is called ‘unit’ play among the big national and international teams. Their team ‘units’ have a fixed style of attacking and defending and players have to abide by these patterns or risk losing their positions on the team.

Harlequins, last year’s surprise Gallagher Premiership winners, were performing below their best and playing moderate rugby until their players were given the go-ahead to play freely and with flair. This changed their fortunes to the point of their wonderful late surge up the table and into the spectacular final, where they defeated Exeter with consistent pace and ball skills.

Former All Blacks boss Steve Hansen has joined those calling for ‘urgent change’ and he said this week: “Yes, we want a good physical contest, that’s what the game is all about – physicality, speed, using the ball and skill. But could you say we saw that in the Springboks vs Lions series? Of course we didn’t. And it turned a lot of people off!”

“You’ve got two big packs and two coaches who don’t have any faith in what’s going to happen if they throw the ball around, so they just beat each other up. It’s a style of rugby nobody wants to watch,” Hansen told Newstalk ZB.

Former Springbok rugby centre Jaque Fourie, who is defence coach for the Lions, responded: “Solid defence is the predominant way the Springboks put pressure on their opponents. If it works so well, why wouldn’t you do so on a continued basis?”

Fourie argued that solid defence frustrates the opposition and told of his playing days under Bok coach Jacques Nienaber at the Stormers. “We were proud of our great defence, and it won us matches!”

Joining the debate with some positive input was a rugby analyst who calls himself ‘Mr Onslaught’ and writes on a website called rugbyonslaught.com. I’m not sure why this scribe has chosen anonymity to make his contributions because his recent article, ‘The Forgotten Secret To Success in Rugby Is Returning’ is very good.

‘Mr Onslaught’ doesn’t necessarily side with the heavy, defensive Bok rugby style or the flair of the French and the All Blacks. Instead, he seems to suggest, rugby will find its own balance with periodic injections of “speed” during every match. “Speed” is his key concept, not an old one, just a style that is returning and will be re-integrated into the game via necessity or its ability to deliver straight-up success when employed.

He goes on to outline the re-appearance of two-phase moves from set pieces that are solely dependent on the speed in which the ball is recycled. Plainly, the faster the ball is moved away from the set piece to the wing or fullback at the end of the line, the better the guarantee that it will work.

Being a two-phased approach, phase one entails drawing the opposing team’s defenders into midfield (phase one), and then, in phase two, creating an overlap from the ensuing ruck. The three vital aspects are the speed at which the ball reaches the outside centre from the set piece, the speed with which loose forwards can tie down defenders around the centre and then the speed with which the ball comes back out and flies to the wing.

This may all sound like it happens in every game, but think about it. It doesn’t. The game is so slow we’re often seeing 10, 20 or even 30 phases and more of systematic grinding before someone crashes over the line to (thankfully) end it all.

Do yourself as favour and watch a clip from ‘Rugbyslate’ – a short video illustrating the two-phase approach with excellent examples of game speed and ball speed. This really isn’t something new, but in viewing it to the background of the slowness that is dominating the game today, you will feel refreshed, enlightened and with hope for the game’s return to a spectacle of skill and pace. Go here, view it, and send us your comments.

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Harlequins are expected to be without their pivotal flyhalf Marcus Smith for the first few games of the new season. The player, described by Warren Gatland as “a superstar of the future” and central to the resurgence of his club last season, is serving a mandatory stand-down period required of all England’s players involved on the recent British & Irish Lions Tour.

Tabai Matson, the new Quins boss, said that Smith won’t be available until Round Four, a clash with hot rivals Bristol, on 8 October. “If Marcus was here all year, I’d be disappointed in a manner. He’s exciting and I think all of English rugby is excited about his potential.

I also wish my son, Jimbo, a speedy recovery from his shoulder injuries. He’ll be out for perhaps another two months, missing much of the first quarter of the club championships as well as a chance to play for Wales in the forthcoming internationals.

Until next week!

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