Peter Bills: New Zealand are revolutionising rugby
Monday 19 July 2010
A strange, alien sighting was glimpsed in the skies above Wellington's Westpac stadium last Saturday night. Or rather, it was something that wasn't there that was so bewildering, so baffling.
A rugby Test match was played without any aerial ping-pong, the great kicking plague of the modern game. Well, that isn't strictly true. One side did still try it. But they lost by 31 points to 17, four tries to two. So they don't matter, do they?
Well, let's hope not.
It might be stretching credulity to suggest that the rugby played by New Zealand these past two weekends in the Tri-Nations, at Auckland and Wellington, has been of a revolutionary nature. After all, can you envisage the All Blacks coach, former Auckland schoolmaster Graham Henry, kitted out in a tee-shirt and beret, Che Guevara style? No, nor me.
But the encouraging thing is, Henry's team is revolutionising rugby. Or at least, it should be. For those with a brain to think, a mind to rationalise, what the All Blacks are doing right now in world rugby terms is what Guevara proposed all those years ago. Sweep away the old rubbish and start afresh.
Here's to the revolution, comrade...
Yet it's not as if Henry's All Blacks are doing something never seen before on the fields of world rugby. Mils Muliaina is taking high kicks from opponents, looking up to assess his options and, when he spies space, counter attacking. Radical? I don't think so. Remember a bloke called Christian Cullen, or JPR Williams?
The All Blacks backs are throwing passes, short and long, unloading and scampering around the back of the ball receiver to take the off-load and make an extra man in the back line. Never seen before? Please, be serious. Have you never heard of players like Frank Bunce, Mike Gibson or Jo Maso?
But the point is, the modern game had descended into a miasma of predictability. It had become boring and formulaic. They kick long to you; you're too scared of losing possession and just lamely kick it back. They catch it and hoof it back to you. Gee, how did we ever stay awake watching all that gumph?
What has made the difference is the new law interpretations. Not new laws, mark you, just a different interpretation. As Graham Henry conceded in a lengthy conversation in our Wellington hotel last Friday afternoon, it is the fact that the team in possession now has a better than even chance of retaining ball at the breakdown that has been crucial.
It has given teams who want to attack the confidence to take the ball into contact. That has meant in New Zealand's case, they have attacked opponents readily from inside their own 22 and often made prodigious distances downfield.
In the case of Mils Muliaina's counter attack at Auckland, it ended with a try by Conrad Smith 75 metres downfield and at Wellington last weekend, Piri Weepu's intuition resulted in Muliaina sprinting to the try line from 45 metres out.
In other words, attacking enterprise is now being rewarded under these new law interpretations.
Now this throws up an intriguing challenge to world rugby. If the All Blacks can do it, why can't others? After all, England started to do it against France in Paris last March before retreating to their more usual bunker mentality against Australia in Perth in June. Having lost that one, they promptly went out and proved that it isn't just the All Blacks who can play this way, by beating the Wallabies in Sydney.
The point of all this is that a precedent has been set. Henry assures me that the All Blacks will take this style into the next World Cup and why wouldn't they? It has been good enough to see off the world champion South Africans twice in two weeks. Why on earth would they rein it in now?
But if that is to be the style New Zealand will bring to the World Cup next year, who will match them, who else will be bold enough to play with intuition, cunning and an attacking intent?
For those not wearing blinkers that blind them to the possibilities available under this new approach, a whole new world of attacking, thrilling rugby is opening up before our very eyes.
As the former World Cup winning Australian coach Bob Dwyer wrote recently “Their (New Zealand's) performances in the recent Junior World Cup final and in last Saturday's test, surely have shown the world – hopefully, once and for all – that we have all been going down a false path and we need to urgently change course.”
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