No apologies for a winning formula

Lawmakers and officials are responsible for the sorry state of the game rather than players and coaches, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Steve Hansen made some interesting comments in the media last week. The All Blacks coach was in the United Kingdom to watch the Six Nations, and a Welsh newspaper took the opportunity to probe Hansen on a range of issues. Unsurprisingly, Hansen suggested that changes have to be made if rugby is to win back the fans.

Hansen is spot on in the sense that rugby is in trouble. You only need look at the drop in TV viewership, as well as the drop in crowd attendance, over the past few years. The game has become increasingly hard to follow, given the complex nature and long list of laws, as well as the fact that referees are encouraged to interpret a law rather than follow it to the letter.

Fans must be asking themselves the question more and more these days: is it worth watching a game in which the referee rather than the two teams determine the outcome?

The referees need to take responsibility for their actions. I wholeheartedly support all those former coaches who have called for officials to face the media after a match. Why should the media, and indirectly the public, ask coaches and players to explain a particular refereeing decision? I’ve lost count of the times where coaches and players have said, ‘Good question. Ask the referee.’

But officials shouldn’t take all the blame. It’s not their fault they have so much power. The laws allow for such subjectivity. Until this changes, until the laws are simplified and officials are instructed to enforce them strictly, the game will continue to suffer.

Perhaps this is what Hansen was getting at in his recent interview. I wasn’t surprised that Hansen asked for referees and TMOs to police the game more stringently. Hansen said everybody involved in rugby had a responsibility to entertain the paying public. The inference was that it was harder for the coaches and players to do their part when referees aren’t doing theirs.

I think Hansen is being too hard on players and coaches. They already cop too much of the blame for the state of the game. This is particularly prevalent in South Africa, where the perception still exists that the top players and coaches are dinosaurs, and that they should be playing with more adventure even if that means sacrificing the traditional strengths.

The advocates of ‘running rugby’ miss the point. They fail to see the similarities between South Africa’s top teams and those of New Zealand and Australia. They fail to see why a modern rugby side has to have a strong pack, defence and kicking game to be successful. It’s because of the laws and the subjectivity of referees that you simply cannot afford to keep much ball in hand.

I sympathise with those who say the game is in a sad state when tactical kicking is more important than ball-in-hand brilliance. However, you can’t fault the coaches for identifying the trends and formulating game plans accordingly. You can’t fault players for sticking to the structures and kicking more than passing. Why should they apologise for wanting to win?

Heyneke Meyer told me last year that he hates kicking. I remember Bok scrumhalf Fourie du Preez saying something similar in early 2008, after the laws had changed (remember the much-mailgned ELVs?).

Du Preez lamented the change as something that would result in more tactical kicking. The Bok scrumhalf may have been one of the world’s finest tactical kickers at that point, and it was his tactical kicking that helped South Africa score monumental wins in the series against the British & Irish Lions and later in the 2009 Tri-Nations. The rugby was ugly but effective. It's not that players wanted to play that way. That’s what it took to win, and if you think about it, that is an indictment on the game rather than any particular team.

Fans must look beyond the obvious. One of the primary reasons for the All Blacks' success in recent years is that they have kicked more than any other side, and they have kicked accurately. Too often we focus on the final few passes that lead up to a try instead of looking at how the New Zealanders moved into a particular field position. Granitic defence and terrific line kicking are at the heart of their game, and they aren’t afraid to use grubbers or chip kicks to create further opportunities in the opponents’ 22.

The Stormers have been the best South African side on show in 2015. This is down to their defence and kicking game. This past Saturday, I watched a 40,000-strong Newlands crowd scream their appreciation when Stormers wing Johnny Kotze scored the opening try. Hopefully they appreciated that a clever kick by Demetri Catrakilis created the opportunity.

The game needs to change, but so too does the public’s perception. There's no such thing as an entertaining brand of rugby or a boring brand of rugby. There is only winning rugby and losing rugby. The teams that win Vodacom Super Rugby and the World Cup this year will be teams that play intelligently. That will involve embracing the need to kick more and tackle more. They will need to play less rugby than their opponents.

It won’t leave rugby lovers satisfied, and I’m sure many casual observers will lose interest. But what people need to remember is players and coaches work within a framework of laws.

If there’s to be a revolution that results in more tries and flowing contests, then it has to take place at the World Rugby HQ. The laws need to change in order for the game to change. When we see a simpler law set implemented, and a strict application of those laws, we will see a brand of rugby that's entertaining as well as successful.

Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images

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Jon Cardinelli