The Brave Hearts of Scotland had to defeat Manu Samoa to go one better than 2011 and make the knock-out stage and, at last, we had a marked contrast in gameplans, showing there are different ways of playing rugby union. The all-out attack of Samoa was the opposite of the direct, set-piece dominant, no mistakes approach of Scotland.
Samoa, living off scraps and regains from excellently executed restarts by Tusi Pisi and some world-class passing and running skills by Tim Nanai-Williams and Rey Lee-Lo, attacked while Scotland suffocated their opponents in the scrum and lineout, scoring tries and kicking penalties from that set piece dominance, and were well led by their impressive goal kicking scrum-half Greig Laidlaw.
It was pleasing to see the contrasts in style because it appears to me that most teams today are trying to play the game the same way. They are looking to copy how the most successful team in the world in recent years, New Zealand, construct their game. The intensive and thorough video analysis available in modern rugby means there are no secrets; every team knows, or should know, in minute detail both the attack and defence structures of opponents around the world. It’s an easy copy. Then it’s about tinkering with that plan or structure and selecting the correct menu to suit the strengths and weaknesses of the next opposition.
The question is whether it best suits your side. That most successful team have been building the game through the generations for years: the kids from that country generally play in good weather conditions. All they know is how to run, catch, pass and try to avoid opponents. They seldom kick. As they get older, the competitions are quality and that helps develop pedigree players. Then there is the ideal mix of DNA for playing that style of rugby: Maori, Pacific Island and European.
That simply is the basis of their game. Do other countries have the same set of circumstances for developing their game? The answer is it varies but it’s not the same. Many would be considerably different. So it begs the question why are we all looking to play the same game?
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Not very long ago, for example, England had a team that would dominate physically. Strangle opposition through a powerful scrum; create havoc through a big driving lineout. Penalties would accrue. Field position and points would mount. There was an intelligent navigator behind, keeping England down the right end of the field or probing with contestable, perhaps try-scoring, kicks and the odd field goal; the backs would complement the platform by providing the finish. Perfect. I know it’s a dream but is that not how kids in England have grown up learning the game?
To me, one of the clear disappointments of modern rugby is that in the main we have lost our innovation. There are a number of different ways and styles to play, but in the main it is derivative even though it probably doesn’t suit the DNA of players or the development environment they grow up in. Scotland and Samoa both played the game that reflected their collective skill levels and their development environments. It was natural and should that not be the norm? It makes the game intriguing and interesting. The interest in this great sport will die unless those who coach and play use their own initiative and innovation and develop their own game.
Australia are doing it their way and won the pool of hell after beating Wales in a match of huge tension that was like a World Cup final. The Wallabies again had that dominant scrum and, despite being down to 13 men for seven minutes and 14 for another six, their defence was incredible with a tackle success of 92%. The tackle by Ben McCalman and Bernard Foley on the imposing George North when they held him up over the line won the game. Wales had the numbers but instead of building the game and using the numerical advantage, they went for a power game through North and Jamie Roberts and the Australians kept knocking them over, as impressive in defence as they had been in attack the previous week against England.
Ireland showed that same resolve and character in beating France 24 hours later. Their euphoria will be dampened by the injuries suffered to world-class players which may hurt them going forward. Their desire meant they got the result they wanted despite the disruption and the set piece provided the platform for their tries. France looked uninterested and barely threatened all evening, but wait until Saturday when all their guns will be blazing in a repeat of the quarter-final of 2007, when the All Blacks lost to Les Bleus at the Millennium Stadium. This will put a shudder through New Zealand but I’m sure the All Blacks would not wish for any other scenario in what I hope will be a another game of contrasts.