TACKLING NOT ALWAYS A PAINFUL ISSUE


The season to date has been a revelation in some ways. Players are running out of contact and into space with short intensive bursts of passing. The All Blacks have shown the way – again – and have lit a touch paper. Take a look at Lyon of the Top 14 and Newcastle in their opening matches.  Two unfancied teams with few stars are winning home and away with some panache. I used to call it passing out of the tackle, but even Will Greenwood is presenting a programme devoted to the offload as it is now called, and as if it is some new strategy. No, what is clear is that the attritional tactic of ‘round the corner’ popping or phase play has been rumbled. Too boring, too many injuries and unsuccessful. Long may it continue, but a rerun to videos of the past will show that the practice was alive and well until Rugby League defence and attack coaches got in the way.

Pin point passing from midfield is also developing nicely, as Toomua of Leicester has shown to date and as the Scarlets are demonstrating as a team. Their status as Pro 12 Champions last year was no fluke and they will fancy their chances in the Champions Cup this year. Cruden now at Montpellier could make even Francois Steyn look like a master centre and make a powerhouse team even more unstoppable. I have seen the throwback from a bygone era, Gavin Henson, playing with such sublime handing skills that some people are thinking of a Wales recall. He is certainly the flip side of Jamie Roberts, but if the Scarlets style of play is adopted neither of them are needed.

Being simply able to pass out of contact is welcome and due to the fact that  defences are having to throttle back on the double tackle or even the high tackle. Too many yellow or red cards and stacks of injuries. The tackling technique of the modern professional player is reckless and prone to cause serious damage on both sides. There’s nothing tough about it, simply foolhardy and senseless. Who is teaching these crazy techniques? Stand up all defence coaches who are often pictured brooding in the background and growling with pleasure when a big hit goes in. Well we have had enough and by the looks of it so have the players.

By all means place a line across the shirt and then the player will know if his tackle rides up the body he could be in trouble. In addition, ban the clear out. How many more times? Then the injury count will reverse as players will realise its a very healthy option as will the coaches.

In my role as Chairman of EPCR, I have the benefit of travelling through Europe and discussing rugby issues of the days with Presidents, Owners, Administrators, Coaches and players. They all have valuable views but they are rarely combined.

The general health of players has hit the headlines, distressingly, because of record numbers of injuries. In addition to poor tackling technique and increased physicality, this is all linked in to how many games they play in a cluttered season, and not just that how much time they spend training or in a gym. Forget that the Lions trained three times in a day – because the day was there perhaps – look at what a traditional week’s training looks like at a professional club, called a ‘day at the office’.

Consider the International season, Six Nations and Autumn Internationals, plus summer tours, Lions tours and the Rugby World Cup. Then the domestic season, be it the Premiership, Pro 14 or the Top 14 in France. Finally, the blue riband European tournaments, the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup. Divide them into the weeks of the year and throw in a mandated rest period and you have the problem right in front of you.

The assets, or players, are rented out for money to the Unions – in some cases – or are owned by both Unions and leagues. They also have a voice.

Why do the key people in this debate not sit round a large table and work out a compromise, before we really do some damage off the field as well as what is happening on the field.

Can anyone think of a ready made group who could discuss this and make some good decisions? I can.

H.

BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS SHOW IT’S NOT ALL BLACK


The All Blacks invincibility has been somewhat dented – that would seem to be the outcome of the drawn British and Irish Lions Tour. Even the Welsh fancy their chances now as per recent media reports and I suppose if you place certain Welsh players and their coaches into the equation and add a splash of Scarlets magic then they have a point!

In my view the tour proved two big points:

1/ In a world of arguably too much rugby a competitive Lions tour is a compelling proposition (who could have doubted it) and brings out the best in the sport. All the tourists of 2017 should be very proud of themselves.

2/ The All Blacks are not playing a different game from the rest of us – or at least can be brought down to earth.

As for the third Test, a few reality checks. The Men in Black should have had the game won at the half hour, absent a Lions fightback of at least three scores on the bounce. Uncharacteristic errors in what they call now the ‘Red Zone’ which were attributed to strong Lions defence but they still should have scored a couple more tries. The All Blacks backline had been significantly restructured so perhaps understandable, but once the chances were gone and the Lions stayed in range the pressure kicked in for both sides.

The rest was all down to resilience and courage from a touring side who could see history in front of them but in honesty were a little short in all departments. Oh for another week together.

The tourists showed how to stem the All Blacks game flow, much has been written on it and the videos will be pored over by the world’s rugby coaches. They also played some great rugby of their own.

Man of the Match had to be the 20 year old débutant, Jordie Barrett. Scored one try, made another and almost scored the winner. Had he been given the kicking tee, game over. He can also play centre and has great pace and awareness. As Steve Hansen says, this is a young team which will get better and the Barrett boys will be at the heart of that. They remain favourites for 2019.

People also need to consider that post World Cup International Rugby has been at a low ebb. South Africa, Australia and Argentina have been rebuilding and it’s proved to be tough for them. The hardest opposition that the All Blacks have faced has been Ireland to whom they lost once and could have again in the return match.

Looking ahead, England in particular will be licking their lips at the prospect of reeling them in. 10 Englishmen in the Lions match day squad, countless others knocking on the door and a two Test win over Argentina with many top players at home. Eddie Jones’ main issue is selection and tactics – as usual! He now has at least three of the 5 world class leaders he says he needs and possibly many more. I thought Anthony Watson looked very dangerous with ball in hand, and his all round game in great shape under pressure…… he just needs the ball and we all know where he has to play for that to happen.

All the Home Nations Squads will take something from the tour, and Scotland’s new Number 4 position in the world ensures that next year’s Six Nations will remain super competitive.

I would say let us enjoy a good rugby-free summer but pre-season training is already underway. The excitement of the All Blacks upcoming tour is in the air – not just for Wales, Scotland and France. The Barbarians await at Twickenham and the team sheet may be an interesting one.

Hallers

Wounded Lions Ready For Wellington


The final scoreline in the first Test may obscure the fact that this was a truly excellent contest between the best players in the world. The first half was as good as it gets, each side playing at the edge of their ability. We saw one of the greatest tries ever seen on a rugby field for a start, and there were lung-bursting phases of thrust and counter thrust which were a delight for the neutral, but the team with the most cohesion was always likely to win that struggle.

We also saw one of the best 8 and 9 performances of all time from Aaron Smith and Kieran Read. I am not sure how you are supposed to deal with the quality of that display, in that they totally eclipsed Murray and Faletau who hardly got a look in. Their tactics dealt with the Lions blitz defence as they probed in the narrow areas but at supreme pace and trusting their handling skills.

I said pre-match that the Back row and the Back three were the key areas for the Lions and so it was. Daly ball-watched badly for the first try, probably thinking that a hooker idling out on the wing was not a threat until he picked the ball up from his bootlaces and dived in at the corner with a good turn of pace. Otherwise the Back three were a bonus although Watsoncant get enough of the ball and really should play fullback.  Unfortunately the Lions efficient line out was more than offset at the breakdown and the imbalance of the back row showed. This was a game-changer as Sam Cane and Jerome Kaino had huge games alongside Read.

The pace and ball handling of the All Black forwards were awesome, in contrast to the Lions who showed no aptitude in that area and preferred to see Murray’s box kicking. While it was impressive, it was  predictable and took the game away from the Lions as they should have either kept the ball in hand or played territory. They were wonderfully dangerous on the counter-attack, but couldn’t construct any continuity in their play and get Te’o more into the game. He showed nine carries but this was misleading.

In my opinion, the Lions forwards now have to get stuck in and then run Te’o and Davies into more traffic to get the All Blacks turning and feeling pressure.Their mobility can be improved with one or two selections but more importantly with a change of tactic.

The mood will have been enhanced by a cracking contest yesterday in Wellington against the Hurricanes. Nobody was realistically going to play their way into the Test Team but there will be smiles in the camp to have more than matched the Super Rugby Champs. Gatland chose not to empty his temporary bench, so we had the unusual sight of many players going the full 80 – a throwback to the old days. For many of them it will be their last Lions Jersey so fair enough.

On to Saturday – how do I see it? Some angry Lions forwards will rip into the Kiwis and the team will try to keep the ball more (or should) as well as play some territory. Farrell needs more front foot ball and Faletau needs to turn up. I sense that the All Blacks will play a wider game and test the fitness of our forwards. We didn’t see much of their attacking game – other than their tries – which is a scary thought. But will they get enough ball ?

I sense that there is plenty left in this tour, in Windy Wellington and in the game that matters.

H.

Lions Stalk Their Prey…


This Lions tour has been fascinating on a number of levels. We all thought that the Crusaders and the Maoris would post significant try-scoring threats and possibly inflict defeats. How wrong we all were, including the Kiwi experts. In fact neither side carried the ball across the Lions try-line, a wonderful pre test statistic.

Does it matter ? Gatland says it’s the Test Series (of course) and everything else can be written off to preparation.  In fact the Maori game was so comfortable for the Lions that you wonder whether there was something untoward about the whole contest as they could have won by 50 points.

The truth is that the Lions have yet to face any game breakers who can put them under tactical pressure but perhaps that’s just the New Zealand way, as well as their main players being held back. The other truth is that the big match Lions players have stepped into the two major challenges to date and seen them off.

I said before that the combination of a Saracens front five and some Irish hard edge in the front and back row could be a winning combination.  Now Sexton has found his form along with Farrell and Murray, the Lions are going to be super competitive.  Te’o has surprised me positively and is now passing out of contact, also good news for England.

But is it enough? The New Zealand gloating has tempered somewhat, and is replaced by nervousness. There is a steel in the Lions defence which they will not like and it could yet become the killer weapon.

On the field, Halfpenny has surprised me and he will be really tested if he starts on Saturday. Given the weather forecast he may be critical with the boot but Farrell is equally good.  I was really pleased to see Jack Nowell finally show his true colours, possibly too late for the Test but Daly will surely play a part.

From a rugby talent perspective, Anthony Watson surely plays fullback but I suspect conservatism wins out as well as the tactical imperative, being described as ‘defend to win’- although it will need to be much more than that.  Farrell will have to play 10 because his passing is more direct and suits Te’o and Davies, bringing them through to break the gainline.

The issues for the B&I Lions are the back three and back row.  If I was the All Blacks (!) that is where I look for weakness because there is an issue of mix and balance.

Importantly, and especially after Tuesday, Lions have the momentum.  The whole squad will be buzzing as they enter the most important fortnight of their rugby lives.  I feel that whatever the result of the series, each side knows they will have to exceed anything they have achieved before to have success.  To the victor the spoils, but this is as big as it gets in any sport in any country and at any level.

Finally…

1/ The furore about cheapening the Lions Shirt with ready made replacements…  All I know is that my unavailability for the ’89 tour remains an abiding sadness in my rugby life and it really is the pinnacle for any player, no argument.  Gatland has had so much adversity to overcome that I understand his actions.  We win the Series and this will be forgotten as an exceptional circumstance but I do feel for the likes of Launchbury.

2/ How good were England and Scotland last weekend – learning the lessons of RWC 2015 and now both sit in the top four in the world. Rightly so.

Meantime, watch the sparks fly in France after losing twice to an experimental Springbok team as Bernard Laporte seeks to find a World Cup winning squad. Memories of England 2005…..

H.

Lions Safari Park – Musings About The Tour And Inside Comments From New Zealand


So the Kiwi Press had a field day and called the opening match performance a ‘disgrace to the jersey’. They have already written off the Lions’ chances – well, that is the best news of the tour and will serve as a boost to the squad who already knew that they were up against it. If the tight schedule, lack of preparation, jet lag and lack of sleep wasn’t enough, the length of the season could be a negative too but it actually means that this group of players know they only have four or five games left and they will have easy enough in the tank for that. So don’t worry about the level of intensity – it will be there.

I am not going to over-analyse this result because the Lions were always going to struggle against a hyped up Babas team. Certain fringe players for test starts (Te’o, Moriarty, Sinckler) made a statement, as did those quite fresh after mid season injuries (Faletau, Kruis). The Wales No 8 shone out like a beacon of quality and will soften the blow of the loss of Billy Vunipola. But this squad cannot afford to lose world class players of his standard, because we do not have many, whatever anyone says. I cannot get past the fingers of one hand.

The one beneficiary of this extraordinary match was Bryn Gatland. The coach’s son was an inspiration at 10, and one or two European clubs will have sharpened their pencils on seeing that performance. He varied his game and got his side running great angles – you do not see that much these days from modern fly halves.

What I was looking for was some evidence of the Lions attack game, because I feel they will have to score three tries in the Test matches. Gatland’s ‘play what is in front of you’ throwaway comment recently seemed to be an over rapid reaction to the fears of a conservative game plan for which he is well known. Te’o broke the gain line well but failed to distribute and we will look for that as the tour progresses because he could break into the team.

However, does anyone know who the Lions attack coach is, because a group of rugby cognoscenti could not tell me; the answer is the reason I remain cautious on the prospect of the tourists unlocking the All Black defence.Last thought – anyone counting the number of first choice injuries the All Blacks have? People always say we want to beat the best team but the reality is that the more understudies that have to step in for the all important First Test increase our chances of laying down a challenge, which will mean much more than the endless Hakas which are springing up wherever the Lions look.

H.

LIONS TOURISTS SHARPEN SOME CLAWS IN CHAMPIONS CUP DRAMA


Who would be a Lions coach?!  After the Champions Cup Semi Final in Dublin, Andy Farrell’s face was wreathed in an unfamiliar smile as Saracens withstood the Munster fire and progressed to the Final in Edinburgh. It wasn’t because we had suddenly agreed on how the backs should play! No, it was due to a clean bill of health for all the Lions on the pitch, mainly wearing Saracens colours. The only thing Andy cares about is getting his players on the plane. He was right to be worried as it took a mammoth effort to take down Munster in front of 50,000 fanatical supporters and it was indeed a brutal match.
 
People have asked me why I haven’t discussed the Lions selection yet so here goes – but frankly 90% were guaranteed and it was the 10% which created the chatter; why so few Scots, not enough English, too many Welsh are the main cries. I also wanted some time to think about the player mix and the off field management – I now detect a distinct approach.
 
I was myself a backs selector for the 2001 Lions tour to Australia and remember calling time on the Scott Gibbs debate when I saw that Rob Henderson would clearly complement the excellent Brian O’Driscoll much better than Scott, who had seen his best days. Releasing BOD’s creative genius, not to mention the young Jason Robinson, was a key objective of the Lions on that tour. This tactic worked until the cynical Aussies took Jonny Wilkinson and then Richard Hill out of the 2nd Test through some cheap shots. Justin Harrison’s line out steal from Martin Johnson is also well remembered as the final clinching moment of the deciding Test.
 
So, the conservatism of Gatland is strongly apparent whatever anyone says – the marginal picks such as Biggar, Te’o, Halfpenny, Youngs, Davies and Seymour could all have been replaced by more creative options but it tells you what the Lions coaches think may make the difference as well as the likely style. We shall see.
 
Meantime there can have been no better warm up than the Champions and Challenge Cup Semi-Finals. The Saracens contingent of Lions tourists were in crushing form, and no surprise that Munster could not make headway against the Vunipolas, Kruis, Itoje and George. Add the indomitable Farrell and they drained the Munster machine, which was malfunctioning already and way off the pace in terms of worrying a team like the defending Champions.
 
In sunny Lyon, 42,000 chanting Clermont fans and 3,000 intrepid Leinster travellers kept noise levels way above international wavelengths. It was a truly great match of skill, power and pace. The Lions will wonder that they can afford to leave Ringrose at home as he was the player of the match, scoring a try which will live in the memory and containing every skill in the book. He compared rather well to Henshaw who will probably start against the All Blacks. Sexton was also on prime form, but unable to reel in the multi national Clermont team after giving them a quick 15 point lead.
 
Elsewhere Toby Faletau continued his exceptional form for Bath in their dramatic last minute defeat to Stade Francais, and his man of the match performance against Gloucester last weekend shows one benefit of mid season injuries as he is fresh and pacey. He must start for the Lions, Vunipola or not.
 
More thoughts to come as we approach the business end of the season and, of course, the Edinburgh Finals loom large.
H.