Brian Ashton: Baa-Baas showed what imagination can deliver
Tackling the issues
Saturday 12 December 2009
Barbarians rugby may have lost a little of its lustre since the dawning of the professional era and the explosion of interest in events at club level, but to my mind it is still something to treasure – not least when the Baa-Baas are involved in a high-quality match that challenges some of the orthodoxies of the modern game.
This happened last weekend at Twickenham, where they achieved a rare and precious victory over the All Blacks. I found their performance fascinating, especially in the current climate of doom and gloom.
How was it that a team thrown together over a few days – one which, in the words of the coach Nick Mallett, had only two "walkabout training sessions" – could beat a side as good as New Zealand in front of 63,000 spectators? Admittedly, a Barbarians fixture does not quite generate the intensity of a full-on Test, and I acknowledge that this All Blacks side was effectively a second string. But it was quite clear to me that both teams took the field with real desire, and as the New Zealand coach, Wayne Smith, had publicly stated that the match represented a major opportunity for his players to press their claims for first-team status next season, the tourists' incentive to catch the eye was very considerable indeed.
The Baa-Baas won primarily because they played with more variety, creativity and imagination than we generally see from international and club sides who spend their lives training and preparing together. And here's the point. Time limitations meant the Barbarians had no choice but to make simplicity and clarity the cornerstones of their approach, and there will have been a massive input from the players themselves. They knew they would need all their intuition and understanding to navigate their way through the contest – to react to events as they unfolded. Without a wholly positive mindset, both in possession and without the ball, they could not have hoped to win.
I'm not suggesting there was no hard edge to their rugby: one look at the team selection told us all we needed to know on that front. The backbone of the side was South African, for the excellent reason that the New Zealanders held no fear for a Springbok contingent who had beaten them with some regularity during the southern hemisphere season. When you take the likes of Habana, Fourie, Du Preez, Du Plessis, Matfield and Burger and add players as good as Matt Giteau and Jamie Roberts (who revelled in the creative spirit to play his best rugby since the Lions tour), you have a combination capable of both matching the All Blacks up front and threatening them with genuine firepower outside the pack. But equally, there were subtleties and intricacies about the Baa-Baas that put some of the rugby we've been watching to shame.
Which leads me to one of the truths of rugby union: never underestimate the value of the dummy switch. Both sides scored tries from this beautifully simple, space- creating ploy, despite operating in narrow channels no more than 15 or 20 metres wide. The All Blacks started with a four-on-four situation, yet managed to give Ben Smith a free run to the line; Giteau manufactured a score for Bryan Habana with a half-break and an offload.
Of course, the dummy switch does not appear in any "101 Best Backs' Moves" manual – a publication I would never allow into the house. Why has it fallen from grace? Because if it is used at all these days, it is as a premeditated se -play. This is entirely ridiculous. The dummy switch works best when defenders' reaction time is minimised, generally after four or five phases. Performed on the hoof, at exactly the right time and in exactly the right circumstances, it kills the opposition far more often than not.
One other thing struck me about the Twickenham game: the All Blacks' use of Sitiveni Sivivatu, their supremely dangerous wing, at outside centre. I assume this was forced on them by injury, but I would not be surprised if the New Zealand coaches did not take another look at this arrangement ahead of the 2011 World Cup. It was not an unqualified success, but it threw up some mouth-watering attacking possibilities. Who would want to defend against Sivivatu when he is seeing more of the ball than usual?
Genuine strike runners in the No 13 position are far from common nowadays: certainly, there aren't too many in the mould of Jeremy Guscott, with whom I had the good fortune to work for many years at Bath. Jerry gave balance to a back division: there was a creative element to his passing, he could kick like a mule off both feet and he was far stronger in defence than many people were willing to believe. (Something to do with his good looks, I suppose). But most of all, he scared opponents with his pace. For my money, Sivivatu could frighten teams in the same kind of way.
English players are missing a trick
Am I alone in feeling disappointed at the absence of bright young English talent from the Barbarians' line-up? I know there are a lot of rugby politics surrounding major Baa-Baas fixtures when they clash with Premiership matches, but it would be nice to think that, somewhere along the line, home-grown talent might be given the opportunity to thrive in an environment where freedom of expression is always more important than remembering every last detail of the game plan.
Apart from anything else, they would spend time socialising with world-class players from half a dozen countries. You cannot buy that kind of experience. What is more, you can't coach it into people either.
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