Brian Ashton: Super 14's fearless creativity makes it a joy
Tackling The Issues
Saturday 27 February 2010
I am not a person who needs much of an excuse to watch Super 14 rugby, or to return to my northern roots by casting an eye over the latest happenings in top-class rugby league, so I did not exactly struggle to fill my time during last weekend's break from Six Nations activity.
The Super 14 broadcasts were of particular interest in light of Danny Cipriani's decision to head Down Under at the end of the season, and to judge by some of the imaginative, free-flowing stuff currently being played in the southern hemisphere, I'm quite happy to predict that he'll revel in his new surroundings.
Super 14 has had a bad press up here in Britain – the critics see it as a form of rugby candyfloss invented by, and played for, television – while the more die-hard union followers have dismissed league as too simplistic and predictable to be truly satisfying. I disagree on both counts: in fact, I think these barbs demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of the demands placed on those who play these dynamic brands of rugby.
Much has been said about the extraordinary 65-72 scoreline in the Lions-Chiefs game in Johannesburg and the statistics were certainly startling: 18 tries in a single match – more tries than 40 per cent of the Guinness Premiership clubs have managed all season. I'm not suggesting that tries by the dozen automatically equate to entertainment or that heavy scoring and good rugby are one and the same thing. I've argued the precise opposite in this column in the past, and last weekend's game at Ellis Park was as notable for its lack of committed defending as it was for anything else.
But I also have to say that, over the course of this European season, I've been thoroughly cheesed off by the continuous stream of coaches, administrators, player and media pundits claiming that it's impossible to play rugby under the current laws in force at the tackle area. With the right mentality, rugby can be played under any set of laws you care to name. The high level of invention and creativity frequently seen in both Super 14 and Super League proves as much. If entertainment is part and parcel of professional sport – and I don't see that there's much of a case to be made against the proposition – here are two tournaments that seem to have their priorities right.
While we're on this subject, whatever happened to the prophets of doom who, at the start of the Six Nations, said that because of the refereeing it would be "impossible for teams to do this" and "too difficult for them to do that"? The Wales-Scotland and France-Ireland matches in the last round told a very different story. If I can find myself some shares in the rugby bandwagon business, I think I'll buy them. It's one of the few growth industries we have left.
There were several themes common to both Super 14 and Super League. Both had players showing bold and creative footwork on the ball and an ability to open up space for others; both featured a high level of reciprocal understanding among support runners; both were impressive in the quality of their second-wave attacking; both demonstrated just how effective an intelligent kicking game can be. A number of tries were scored from well-directed, well thought-out kicks. In comparison with the Premiership, there were very few examples of players putting boot to ball aimlessly, or in a fit of panic.
Here were people staying on their feet, keeping the ball off the ground and constantly switching the focus of attack, all of which called into question one of the myths of coaching: that attacking rugby of this quality is necessarily a high-risk venture. To my mind, that is as lazy a view as it is negative. Individuals armed with good core skills and blessed with the right mindset are not taking risks: instead, they are playing what they see in a confident, challenging fashion. If you doubt that, just watch the way some of the Super 14 players attack, flooding into dangerous areas of the field in the expectation of a tackle being broken. Sometimes, it seems to me that Premiership players freeze with shock when one of their colleagues beats an opponent.
If we could just change our mentality here, we might see more "value-added" players coming to the fore: players who not only fulfil their primary roles but bring something extra, something different to the mix. The two Saturday games in the last round of Six Nations matches showed what can be done if the game is approached in a spirit of optimism and adventure. Let's hope this weekend's matches reinforce the point.
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