Victory more than a passing attraction

Mark Evans, the Saracens coach, says the spectacular is the sensible approach
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The Independent Online
So How has it been for you? The season so far that is - this brave new world of pay for play, loud PAs and Nigel Wray. Amidst all the confusion - both real and imaginary - one change stands out amongst all the rest. Look at the number of points being scored, the long periods of continuous play, the predominance of "tap and go" rugby, the lack of tactical kicking. Something is up. English club rugby has been transformed and the game is well nigh unrecognisable.

Some coaches have claimed that professionalism has brought about this shift; that we now have a duty to entertain and that the "product" must be attractive to the punters. If this were the case then presumably the Carling Premiership would be full to bursting with attractive teams playing one-touch football and to hell with the consequences. As it is, thousands of people watch Arsenal and Everton every week. Winning is the primary, if not sole, aim in sport and rugby is no different. More teams are playing running rugby because they perceive it as being the style which is most likely to win matches under the laws which have been introduced this season.

Lifting in the line-out is now permissible - with reasonable organisation you can bank on winning 80 to 90 per cent of your own line- out throws. Gone are the days when a team could remorselessly drive up the touchline winning line-out after line- out. If you kick the ball out of play this season the odds are that you won't get it back for quite a time. Might as well try to run with it instead.

The other key set-piece - the scrummage - has also been overhauled. Now that the defending back row must stay bound, the attacking side has acres of room in which to launch running attacks off the back of the scrum. The final piece of adjustment has been the way in which the tackle law is being refereed. The onus is now on the tackler to roll out of the way once the tackle has been made - creating space for the ball to be played away. Although this has not always been interpreted consistently, it has resulted in fewer pile-ups, more continuity and quicker ball from the ruck.

The impact of all this has also been felt on the training pitch. More time is being spent on contact and presentation skills at the expense of set-piece practice. There are fewer rehearsed backline "moves" and a greater emphasis on passing and support running. Most teams have realised that if they keep the ball in hand, take it through a number of passes and do things at pace then eventually the opposition will run out of defenders.

I must confess to some initial distrust of this "candyfloss" rugby, which at times has borne more than a passing resemblance to basketball. Where was the traditional "softening up" process, in which the two packs tested each other out? Had the game lost the essential element of confrontation which attracted so many to it in the past?

In September the headless-chicken element held sway but in the last few weeks there has been some evidence of a more balanced, but still entertaining, game emerging. Cardiff went to Wasps and dominated them up front, the Pontypridd pack gave Bath an almighty hammering and Munster continue to give any visitors to Thomond Park some good old-fashioned hurry up. This does not mean a return to the bad old days of up and unders, rutting props and crash-ball centres. But it might well mean that we get the best of both worlds. Loads of points do not in themselves guarantee an absorbing game - on the other hand, the casual spectator does want to see players running with the ball at regular intervals.

We are nearly there but for one missing ingredient. So far this year there has been an understandable tendency always to give the benefit of the doubt to the attacking side - witness the ridiculous number of penalty tries that have been awarded. This has also resulted in some very dubious midfield off-side decisions and a reluctance to accept that the defending side might have won the ball legally.

All the great team games have a delicate balance between attack and defence, the creators and the destroyers. Over time every game has to adapt to maintain this relationship - rugby union has done so quite successfully; all we need now is a little fine tuning.

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