Rugby Union: The sidestep passes into history

Andrew Longmore examines why one of the game's glories is a fading memory
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ONE HALF of the crowd ended up in Monmouth and they are still searching for the other half down Carmarthen way. That is what they claim in Wales anyway, 26 years on from the day Phil Bennett executed not one, but three, sidesteps on the way to setting up that try for the Barbarians.

Bennett was the inheritor of a precious tradition of sidesteppers which could be traced back to Carwyn James, through such elegant three-quarters as Ken Jones of Llanelli and Cardiff then on to Barry John and the incomparable Gerald Davies, who could sidestep with equal facility off either foot.

Gerald - you only needed the christian names in those days - was down my way recently, signing copies of his World Cup book. I asked him if he could still do a sidestep after all these years. "Oh yes," he said. "Both feet. Once you learn you never forget it. There was no better feeling in the world than drawing a man on to you and then leaving him standing." He had copied his sidestep from Carwyn James. "But you should speak to Ken Jones. He was the best that I saw."

It is not just in Wales that the sidestep has become a lost art. A quick trawl round the rugby correspondents revealed the odd glimpse of a shuffle in this World Cup which might have been a sidestep but not the genuine "now you see me, now you don't" version perfected by the likes of Davies and Bennett. One of the best, apparently, was by Keith Wood, the Irish hooker, in the latter stages of their defeat by the Australians. Otherwise, the combination of massed defence and set-piece attack has suffocated the life out of one of the game's most balletic movements.

Executing a genuine sidestep at pace requires perfect timing, hours of practice and extraordinary confidence at the best of times; with 15 stone of Tongan on the rampage, it would also help to have a suicidal tendency. By its nature, the sidestep requires such a sharp change of direction, the sidestepper comes almost to a standstill just for an instant. And if that instant happens to be the moment of contact with the tackler, the sidestepper will be driven back and, most likely, the ball will be turned over. The wingers have had their moments in the tournament: Dan Luger accelerating past the Fijian defence with an exhilarating mix of power and pace; Jonah Lomu bulldozing for the English line and little Christophe Dominici pickpocketing the All Blacks defence like the Artful Dodger. But only Christian Cullen, the New Zealand centre, has executed the sidestep with any real conviction.

"You don't see the spectacular sidesteps that you once did," Ian McGeechan, the coach to the 1997 Lions and himself the owner of a neat sidestep, said. "You can teach players to sidestep, but to do it at pace, that's in the genes. Defences are different these days, spaces are tighter and so you don't get the one-on-one opportunities that you might have had a decade ago. Richard Sharp breaking and going round the full-back, that wouldn't happen today."

If the sidestep of D Ken Jones - the D distinguished him from another Ken Jones of Newport - is recommended by Gerald Davies, it comes by royal appointment. Jones went to the same school as Carwyn James and fed from the same table. He practised in the garden with sticks set apart at intervals of five feet and, as an 11-year-old, he would sidestep through them, pretending to be Carwyn.

At school, he did athletics and learnt to add pace to his sidestep until the time came when he could unveil the move for Llanelli. "Roy Noble, the comedian, used to say they had to send for Interpol to find us," Jones laughs. "It was all in the angle and the timing. You either had it or you didn't by the age of 10 or 11. You couldn't teach it at 16 or 17."

McGeechan believes the skill was handed down unconsciously on the streets and the scrubland. "That's where it comes from, games of tag where you had to be elusive to survive because there was no space," McGeechan recalls. "I was out on the streets every day from the age of seven playing rugby and football." And a streak of the slippery schoolboy pervaded McGeechan's running, notably when he scored a hat-trick of tries in a provincial game on the 1977 Lions Tour, each one featuring a classical sidestep. "Good steppers have very quick feet and the movement is executed very late, with the defender no more than a metre away. With a genuine sidestep, you're going at a 90-degree angle, so the movement is very dramatic."

A manual of rugby coaching, sanctioned by the Rugby Football Union and with a foreword by Don Rutherford, the former technical director, makes no mention of the sidestep at all. But in a little book called Rugby Skills by Will Carling published in 1994, two pages are devoted to the art. "The aim is to wrong-foot the opposition by leaning and moving one way before exploding off in the opposite direction." The move is illustrated by four sequential pictures with four steps to a decent sidestep. But a sidestep cannot be effectively learnt from a book.

At Reigate Grammar School where he has produced consistently entertaining and successful sides for the best part of 25 years, Alan Reid tries to teach his whole squad how to sidestep. His most instinctive stepper this season, he says, is a barrel-chested prop for the Under-15s. "I don't demonstrate how it should be done too much these days," he says. "But we do gymnastics and develop running skills, swerving, dropping the shoulder and then try to develop those in competition against tacklers or in confined spaces.

"It's a personal thing. I enjoyed the sidestep when I played, that's why I coach it. But there is more emphasis on getting across the gain line and angles of running now, even at schoolboy level and the problem is that the best sidesteppers are usually the smaller kids, who get found out when they move up to a higher, more physical, level."

It is encouraging to find such skills being nurtured so tenderly because for all its thundering physicality, there has been too much of what Ken Jones terms "head down, arse up, goat rugby" in this 1999 World Cup. Too many coaches seem suspicious of the sort of individuality which flaunts the percentages, and the sidestep, by its nature, is a dangerous and delicate mode of attack.

It was also a symbol of the style, freedom and downright mischief which once characterised the Welsh game. The sidestep, like the nutmeg in football, makes a fool of the opponent. On the evidence of the last five weeks, the art is in danger of becoming extinct, a frivolity confined to replays of the video of 1973 and to the memories of old masters like Phil and Gerald.