Peter Bills: Only the best can excel in modern rugby

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The Independent Online

So what sort of game are we drifting towards as we come towards the final weekend of the 2009 November international rugby series?

For sure, it is one utterly without space, nor with barely a moment of time available for thought by individual players. The sort of game that has been created under the strictures of professionalism has, pretty much, consigned the old game to the scrapheap forever more.

When did you last see a centre threequarter side-step or attempt and achieve a classic outside break? How often nowadays do we see any wings properly set up and released with exquisite timing by their colleagues inside them? Where today is the master pass from the No.9, the type of fast, flat service that used to be achieved off either hand by the scrum half standing at the base of the ruck and sending the ball away in one sweeping movement? Today, most half-backs pick it up, run a couple of yards sideways to assess their options and if nothing is available, they ship it sideways. Quel calamite!

How many outside halves have the courage and confidence to play with their heads up, to search for the attacking option before resorting to the inevitable kick? How many are prepared to play on the gain line, to challenge and ask questions of the defence safe in the knowledge that their ball skills are good enough to survive the pressure of operating under such close attention. This is a major reason for England's inertia behind the scrum; Jonny Wilkinson operates 15 metres behind the gain line. Most attacking options are lost under such a strategy.

Besides, England's selectors believe brawn is best, not brain. How else to explain the inclusion of players like Ayoola Erinle, Dan Hipkiss and Matt Banahan, when Shane Geraghy and Matthew Tait were left on the bench at Twickenham last Saturday?

In the modern game, only the absolute very best of players can excel under the present laws. Just a few, a very few are capable of finding space.

What is more, this elite group have the skills to handle this demanding contemporary game and the ability to exploit space when they create it. But we are talking about barely a handful of individuals in the whole world, the absolute creme de la creme: Daniel Carter, Brian O'Driscoll, Conrad Smith, Matt Giteau, Shane Williams.

Few others come to mind, although we should acknowledge the excellent work being done at French club champions Perpignan by coach Jacques Brunel. His philosophy has encouraged a creative, attacking mindset in which threequarters like Maxime Mermoz, David Marty, Jerome Porical and Julien Candelon have flourished. And there was an audacious international debut by Jonathan Sexton for Ireland last Saturday night, a performance which promised so much for the future.

Alas, these are rare exceptions, as are the silky skills of men like Carter and O'Driscoll.

Yet as that great Frenchman Jean-Pierre Rives once said "The whole point of rugby is that it is, first and foremost, a state of mind, a spirit." Sadly, it is hard to detect much traditional spirit in the modern game. Players fall like skittles in a bowling alley, smashed down by the hulking brutes who roam the playing fields intent chiefly on injury. Creativity, entertainment is not in these players' lexicon.

Rugby always found space for the tough guys up front. How else did players like Colin Meads and Michel Palmie of France become famous? But in those times, the game had a balance, a mix. It offered a stern physical examination but it also gave joy, fun and entertainment.

No-one who has been at Twickenham for the past three Saturdays could pretend that they witnessed barely a single moment of those three qualities, those great and glorious emotions which were the founding struts of this game. All England's loyal patrons get is bucket loads of gruel. No wonder they boo and jeer. They have every right to, given they have spent around £85 a ticket to watch this tripe.

But parochialism is the preserve of fools; it isn't just England who are producing this dire stuff. Genius and creativity are being squeezed out of the game, like pips from an orange, right across the world. All that matters now is size, physical commitment and defensive organisation. Go and watch most schools games and you will see the point proven.

Rugby has allowed itself to become a vehicle for physical excess, a free ticket to committing certain acts on a field that would earn you 6-months in the slammer if you did them in the streets. No-one has minded, it has all been sanctified under the banner of a man's game, whatever that may mean. But it has been achieved by professional coaches at the cost of squeezing out individuality, personal decision making and that spark of unpredictability that always lit up the game.

Today, so much rugby is dark, dreary and despairing. Defence obsessed, too. All we see is the bash, bash of players seeking contact, hammering zealously into one another apparently to see which behemoth is the last standing. Guys, I have to tell you – people are bored with this approach. Why else do you think they boo at Twickenham?

As for defence, a quote from Australia's inventive 1991 World Cup winning coach Bob Dwyer best sums up the current situation. "Some people say to me, I thought we saw some quality defence today. Well, I'll tell you whether I think there has been quality in defence when I see some quality in attack. But I'm still looking."

Exactly. It is time for the focus to be switched to attack, to improving ball skills and to giving players freedom outside the straight-jackets imposed by too many coaches. Let them play what is there, not what has been practised a thousand times on the training field. Let THEM decide, let THEM make the calls, take some risks. The game, even with some inevitable mistakes, would be so much the better for it. But would most coaches be brave enough to embrace such a philosophy?

I don't buy the view that only if a team wins are supporters sated. If England had lost to Australia and New Zealand this month but played some superb rugby and scored some wondrous, inventive flowing tries, I'm willing to bet they would have been cheered off the ground, whatever the result.

But right now, England's long suffering supporters are getting the worst of both worlds; no results and no entertainment. And that is true in plenty of other countries, too, with one or two notable exceptions.

We're entitled to ask, which of the two words, dreary and dire, do the people who run some of these teams, not understand?