Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Where do the die-hard critics of Super 15 rugby go now, following the fast-flowing splendour of the Crusaders-Sharks game at Twickenham last Sunday? I spent some time at the annual National Schools Sevens tournament this week and bumped into no end of people – from Joe Public on the one hand to international coaches and players on the other – who had been blown away by the standard of play produced by Dan Carter, Sonny Bill Williams and the rest of the southern hemisphere cast.
The question posed by those still to be convinced by the kind of spectacle produced by the New Zealand and South African franchises is a basic one: is it real rugby? There is no doubt that Super 15 has an element of "entertainment" built into it, but whether this is necessarily a bad thing is open to debate. You might argue that in the professional age, when people pay good money to watch live sport, "entertainment" should be obligatory. But leaving such philosophical discussions to one side, we can surely base a judgement on whether Super 15 is in any way artificial on the evidence of our own eyes, and I have to say that the heavy-duty scrummaging of the Crusaders tight forwards and the ferocity of the counter-rucking by both sides as they went in search of turnover ball looked pretty real to me.
What we saw was a classic example of strong foundations – sound technique, top-rate physical conditioning, formidable skill levels and a wholly admirable work rate both on and off the ball – underpinning high achievement, and it gave the two teams, particularly the Crusaders in that superb first-half display, the platform from which to launch a brand of union we rarely see in these islands from teams below Test level. So many rugby clichés, trotted out by coaches and players alike, were thrown clean out of the window, and I can't help thinking that the rugby was the better for it.
There was a striking willingness to keep the ball on the field (was it my imagination or were there very few line-outs?) and a desire to attack and counter-attack from anywhere and everywhere. There were errors on both sides, and neither coach would have left London 100 per cent content. But the fast-moving, multifaceted, challenging nature of the contest surely gave those operating at the elite end of the northern hemisphere game much food for thought.
What were the vital elements which allowed the match to explode in the way it did? By combining fitness and work rate with an attacking mindset that produces a wholly positive pattern of behaviour, and adding in a skill-set that cements together the physical and mental sides of the game, the grandest ideas can become reality. At the weekend, this reality was presented to us – especially during that first 40 minutes, when the Crusaders took the breath away.
I was struck by the mastery of the New Zealanders, forwards and backs alike, in attracting and holding the interest of defenders. Not once did the Crusaders' decision-makers buy time and space for themselves by playing deep. Indeed, the likes of Carter and Williams were incredibly confrontational in operating in the faces of their opponents. For them, nimble footwork, an acute understanding of how and when to give or delay a pass or an offload, and an awareness of space were the means of creating opportunities for their colleagues.
Repeatedly, the Sharks found themselves a long way from their comfort zone as the Crusaders' running lines opened up holes on the inside, in the very heart of the South Africans' defence, or created inviting gaps in the outside channels. The close proximity of the attacking players to one another made high-speed execution possible and forced the tacklers to make last-second adjustments. In effect, they were pressed into taking decisions they would rather not have made.
As the game continued after the interval, fatigue was inevitable. This explains why the contest became increasingly unstructured and was seemingly chaotic at times. Yet there was still an air of patience about the key figures, who showed great faith and belief in the rugby they were trying to play. Even at the end, with exhaustion taking its toll, the support running was exceptional – both from those in the busiest areas of the field and from those on the periphery of the action.
What impressed me most in the last 20 minutes was players' willingness to abandon the hoary old principle of "go-forward" in a determined attempt to seek out space wherever it might be. At times, they went sideways and even backwards, yet still had the capacity to produce ball from the tackle quickly and cleanly. Always, the priority was to maintain a sense of order in attack as a means of exploiting any looseness in the opposition defence.
There was so much for the connoisseur to enjoy during those 80 minutes at Twickenham – 80 minutes that, to my mind, set a benchmark for the game as it heads towards another World Cup. Coaches at all levels of the sport in this neck of the woods should be pondering the lessons as we speak.
Sonny Bill has it all, but All Blacks can still afford not to start him
Sonny Bill Williams, the latest All Black phenomenon, was at the very heart of things last weekend. He is a unique character in world rugby: his seamless transition from international-standard league to Test-level union – a transition made within a calendar year – combined with his capacity to use his fists to good effect in entirely legitimate sporting fashion (he is, it seems, a useful boxer) forces us to look upon him as a special case.
His understanding of the offload – the how, when and why of this extremely demanding skill – appears to be second nature, and is rightly being celebrated by coaches, fellow players and spectators alike. Yet he is also top-drawer when it comes to the more traditional passing game, and when you add his ability to wrong-foot defenders – he is unusually nimble for a big man – and a penchant for making the big-hit tackle at the right time, the word "special" springs to mind.
And now, it seems, Williams is busily mastering the art of the short kicking game – something he used to great effect in the last half-hour of the match at Twickenham. Already, he looks capable of adding a fresh dimension to the role of inside centre, yet he is not guaranteed a place in the New Zealand team. Which is rather scary when you think about it.Reuse content