Will 13 a side make teams attack again?

Defences have been on top and drastic action may restore spirit of adventure
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Short of doing away withwing-forwards and playing 13 a side, it is difficult to see how we can get adventurous rugby back on the agenda and free the World Cup from its defensive straitjacket. Although we have had some exciting moments, there aren't many inspiring lessons to be taken away from Paris.

The basic conclusion that the past six weeks have left us with is further confirmation that the World Cup, like God, favours the big battalions with the big defences. That doesn't mean to say that it hasn't been an enjoyable tournament, but the excitement came mainly from the unpredictability of it all.

Starting with the opening match, in which Argentina left France open-mouthed, it moved from shock to shock. Thanks to the minnows, even those matches that went the way of the form book gave us the fleeting promise of more upsets on the way.

And the early departure of New Zealand and Australia brought a touch of sensation from an unexpected source.

It has all been strange for many reasons. If France had had a decent kicker in that first game, they might well have beaten Argentina. If Stirling Mortlock had not missed a kick, England might not have emerged. If Stephen Jones had not hit the post three times, Wales would have beaten Fiji and Gareth Jenkins would still be in a job...

There are always these might-have-beens to consider, but when you examine the paths that led to last night's final, the sad truth is that raw and resolute defence – and not brave and creative attacking – stands the best chance of achieving success in rugby's top competition.

Australia in 1991 were the last winning team to perform in anything like an exciting manner. Since 1995, and the advent of professionalism, the victory recipe has been a good defence, a big pack and a good kicker.

New Zealand and the Aussies, two sides who banked on their creativity more than most, have had two weeks to reflect that they would have been better off concentrating more on playing with strength and security.

Apart from one or two spectacular games – Wales v Fiji was exceptional – defences have been on top, and it is difficult to be creative when you cannot get quick ball to help you to get over the gain line.

The problem is that World Cups tend to lead the way in playing trends, and this defensive mentality is spreading. After France, it may even dampen down the helter-skelter rugby they play in the Super 14s.

It is already firmly embedded in the Premiership in England, where the defensive accent has most certainly been a help to England's transformation over the past few weeks. It is not pretty but it is powerfully effective. Trouble is, it is easier to coach defensive, risk-free rugby. That's why you need World Cups to produce inspirational stuff that will encourage coaches to let their players loose.

There were only two aspects of the tournament that enterprising coaches could learn from. The first is the art of the turnover and the second is the importance of decision-making on the field.

With the games so tight, turnovers have been producing the best opportunities for attack, and no team has made more of these than South Africa.

Eddie Jones, now helping South Africa, has pointed out that defences are so strongly established around the ruck that attacking teams are forced to go wider when recycling the ball. But teams are reluctant to do this because it gives the opposition more of a chance to win a turnover. South Africa don't mind going wide because they have Bryan Habana.

Decision-making on the pitch has played a big part in the major outcomes. New Zealand lost their composure and had no one who could reshape their tactics to rescue their game. When you saw Luke McAlister trying to drop a goal from 50 yards you realised how desperately short of ideas they had become. In the same way, Australia missed Stephen Larkham, because he is aware of what action is necessary to get a grip of a game that is going away from you.

You need strong-minded men to guide a team when the pressure is on, and no one does that better than Jonny Wilkinson. He has not been at his best in either goal-kicking or distribution, but his decision-making and his control of his team's efforts at crucial times have been a major contribution to England's success.

I mean no offence to England in my complaints about the domination of defensive power, but if we want the game to offer more creativity then something fundamental has to be changed.

My opening remark about getting rid of wing-forwards was not quite serious, but with players getting bigger and faster every year the presence of 30 on the park does cause more congestion than the game needs.

When you think of the great flankers we've seen down the years, I'm reluctant to suggest their departure but, while they can be brilliant when going forward, flankers are destructive players. Remove them and thrilling outside-halves might not be a thing of the past.

If you reduce teams to 13 it doesn't mean that you will end up with rugby league. Scrums, line-outs, rucks and mauls will still feature but, with more space available, the quality, attraction and excitement will improve.

For a less revolutionary way of restoring creativity, I trust we can rely on the IRB. A meaningful rule change might help.