Rugby Union: The new philosophy is logical positivism: The Courage Championship is enjoying a metamorphosis as boot and brawn give way to enterprise and running in the title race

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The Independent Online
When even clubs with as austere a reputation as Gloucester and Orrell preach the joys of open rugby, then we can be assured something weird and wonderful is happening to English rugby.

From vice-like forward grip to the virtue of free-running enterprise with tries and points in abundance. After the sterility of much of last season's Courage Championship First Division, this is a metamorphosis.

Everyone, from top to bottom, is at it. The results may have been variable - look how Wasps were restored to reality by West Hartlepool last Saturday - but the good intentions are palpable. Wasps move the ball wide at every opportunity, Leicester line up flat and pass it short.

Sale have been promoted in the knowledge that their hope is passing. Departure of the forwards who sustained Orrell and Gloucester down the years has made even Edge Hall Road and Kingsholm temples of the new creed.

'There is a general feeling that we've got used to league football, learned to cope with the pressures,' Barrie Corless, Gloucester's director of rugby, said. 'People have come to appreciate that you can win games with more than boot and brawn.

'They are fed up with the boring old style. All of us involved in the game would far rather be involved in high-scoring games with exciting, attacking rugby than the kick- it-in-the-air-and-chase-it stuff.'

Coming from Kingsholm, this would be radical thinking were it not for the widely held view that, after last season, something had to be done. 'The First Division was stagnant and boring in the extreme, with reliance on forward driving and high-ball kicking, because that was what the laws required,' Tony Russ, the Leicester coaching director, said. He accepts some of the responsibility.

'Now there has been a law change which gives credence to rucking again; you can now play for position again. Couple that with what happened in South Africa, when I was excited beyond belief with some of the play and attitude we saw against England from teams like Transvaal.'

The law change to which Russ referred gives the scrummage put- in to the side going forward at an inconclusive ruck, whereas for the previous couple of years it had perversely gone against the side who had started the ruck.

The effect of its temporary predecessor had been so negative - the precise opposite of the law-makers' intention - that English rugby, meaning the national team as well as its leading clubs, had slipped into mediocrity. Hence the boredom.

What happened next is instructive and hopeful. The Wasps example is well-documented; Leicester and Gloucester did something similar. 'I've felt for a long time that for the effort we put into back play the results have been less than satisfactory,' Russ said. 'What we're doing is a contrast with the traditional English style of back play, which is a steepish alignment with most of the action taking place behind the gain-line.

'That way, you are playing under comparatively easy conditions, because defences are away from you and have time to watch what you are doing. Contrast that with a set of backs almost eyeballing the opposition. The opposite applies. You have very little time, you run straighter and you commit the defence to come straight at you rather than drift across the field.

'They have no time to respond to what you are doing but you are under a fantastic amount of personal pressure and there is a much higher skill level involved. It's actually not that new - Leicester had a thing about it in the Seventies and early Eighties. When it goes right it goes very right and when it goes wrong it's fairly horrific.'

Russ has been influenced by the philosophy of a Tiger of that very era: Clive Woodward, who took Henley, unbeaten, to the National Fifth Division last season and is now coaching London Irish. By contrast, Gloucester had no back- play tradition whatsoever with which to influence Corless.

'Last summer I looked at the strength of the side and the way I'd like them to play, and it certainly wasn't the old 10- and nine- man stuff,' he said. 'The players were unanimous that they wanted to be more expansive and adventurous. It suited us very well.'

Gloucester had their own pre-season visit to South Africa to experience at first hand the abandon of their back play, right down to club level. 'I was fascinated by South African sides,' Corless said. 'When we played them, they all did the same thing: run everything. If, for instance, you kick the ball to them they say thank you very much and run it back. Every time.'

But then, this being England, came the rain to spoil everything. All the good intentions in the rugby world may not take account of the British weather, and Paul Turner, coach of Sale and an open- rugby evangelist if ever there was one, gives us a timely warning as winter approaches. 'I've played this sort of way wherever I've been and frankly it was the only way Sale were going to survive,' the former Wales stand-off said.

'But I'm afraid you do need your big, strong forwards come the bad-weather days. Even the Australians and South Africans aren't that clever when the weather comes. Anyway, I'm in favour of cutting out most of these wet- weather months - but that would be revolutionary, wouldn't it?'

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