Peter Bills: Southern hemisphere players have superior skills
Monday 10 May 2010
We won't know for sure until the World Cup next year. I never think the end of season tours in either hemisphere are much of a yard stick as to serious form or trends.
Players are invariably tired by the end of a long season. The idea of flying to another hemisphere and spending weeks away from home when you are mentally weary after a hard season is never attractive.
Perhaps New Zealand regularly buck such a trend, as their demolition of France in Marseille last November showed. But the Springboks had a dire end of season tour to Britain and Europe last November. Did that make them a declining force? Not on the evidence of this season's Super 14 where the Bulls and Stormers are currently the leading lights.
But I suspect my theory that the southern hemisphere players simply have superior skills to their northern hemisphere counterparts will be born out at the World Cup. It isn't just that the game is generally being played at a faster pace south of the equator which inevitably demands superior fitness levels. Of course, ground conditions are a big part of that but there is a greater desire and understanding of the need to find continuity, chiefly by means of offloading in the tackle, in the southern hemisphere.
Too often up north, too many players still prefer to adopt the macho approach, driving into tacklers to try and inflict pain but going to ground with the ball and thereby slowing down the play. The three countries of the southern hemisphere in the Super 14 have learned that off-loading is key to the successful completion of movements. And tries, not penalty goals, are the chief currency of the Super 14.
Some of the Super 14 games this season have been played at a stunning speed. But if you attempt to play that fast you need the ball skills to go with it. One without the other simply isn't possible.
To see lock forwards, props and hookers taking the ball into contact but searching all the while for the off-load to ensure the momentum is maintained, is the key to the faster, more fluid southern hemisphere game.
Can the north's players acquire these skills? Yes, but they're not going to do so overnight. It takes practice to play the game with this skill level and for too long the game especially in Britain has been far too pre-occupied with just physicality. It has been played at a slower pace and with commensurate slower thinking. There are few heavyweight forwards who eye up a defender in front of them and think all the while, take out the player but release the ball at the critical moment.
Yet there are some clubs attempting to play this style of rugby already in the northern hemisphere. Toulouse have always espoused a fast, fluid game style and since Christmas, when they were first from bottom of the Guinness Premiership, Bath have played in a similar style. It has been so successful that they have now reached the play-offs, a remarkable achievement but one which demonstrates the effectiveness of this policy of keeping the ball alive, maintaining movement and not going to ground in the tackle unless absolutely essential.
Northampton are another club who have understood that to defeat the tightly structured, rigidly organised defences of the modern game you must play at pace and with panache to stretch and then break them. Clever fluidity and momentum in movements, switching the angle of the attack and keeping the ball in hand are the keys to unlocking this particular door.
But what the northern hemisphere has to bear in mind is that the World Cup next year will be played under the new law interpretations which have created this faster, more fluid game. Given those interpretations, the southern hemisphere teams will have a clear advantage over their counterparts in the north because they are naturally more used to an open, running style of rugby.
There is still 16 months to go before the 2011 World Cup begins. It is imperative that all the countries of the northern hemisphere work assiduously on these traits in that time. If they don't, one of the southern hemisphere countries will likely walk away with the Webb Ellis trophy, for the sixth time in seven tournaments.
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