Percentage play dulls the Premiership

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One of the most discussed recent games of rugby was the second leg of the Leicester-Ospreys Heineken Cup tie, which included the incident that led to Welsh centre Gavin Henson’s long suspension and the snatching of a late victory by the Tigers.

Yet in the broader context of the sport, the more revealing moments came in the first meeting. Leicester won that as well, but not before they and their fans had been transfixed by the Welsh region’s two first-half scores.

The first came from a pivot and exquisitely angled pass by Henson, the second a copybook assault from set-piece ball delivered through a clean break followed by a perfectly timed pass to draw and beat the final defender. Executed with speed and precision, it was as stoppable as the flash of lightning it resembled to watchers accustomed to the percentage play that prevails in the Guinness Premiership.

In that league the norm is, as Newcastle’s director of rugby Rob Andrew put it, “arm wrestling”.

There are exceptions. Sale, with Charlie Hodgson demonstrating the possibilities of the drifting half-break and the subtle change of angle, and Northampton continue to explore the game’s wider possibilities, as Wasps will doubtless do at play-off time. But most matches feature endless attritional conflict at the gainline with players massed at the breakdown for another collective charge, or attempt to resist the opposition’s charge, and midfield backs likelier to run back towards their forwards than seek space and support further out.

For some the explanation is simple – relegation. Release clubs from the fear of the drop and positive, constructive play will flower in the Premiership. One cannot blame Worcester or Bristol for playing the percentages to preserve hard-won status in a highly competitive league. But Worcester and Bristol are no duller or more predictable than most of their established rivals. The reporter who complained, at a match over Christmas, that he had not seen a decent game all season, spends his time covering a club that has not worried about relegation in years.

Brian Ashton, who has recently returned to coach Bath, has pointed to an innate Anglo-Saxon tendency to caution. But he might be closer to the mark when he said in the same interview that “I suspect not a lot of individual skill development is actually going on”.

Ashton’s thesis is striking because it echoes the critique of the Welsh game by Robert Jones in the book Raising the Dragon in 2001. (A declaration of interest: I was his co-author). This is that the extra time given to players and coaches by professionalism has gone into making them stronger, better organised – particularly in defence – and fitter, but there has been no corresponding growth in the attention given to the basic skills such as taking, giving, timing and angling a pass that underpin effective attacking play.

The Welsh game has reacted and changed since 2001, because it had no alternative. There is no such imperative driving English clubs. Crowds have never been better, the Premiership is competitive in a way that puts its football counterpart to shame and it is after all little more than two years since England won the World Cup.

It is time perhaps to look at the wider issue of how the game has developed, with a shift towards negativity in the eternal dialectic between defence and attack. Pitches are the same size as they were when teams were reduced from 20 to 15 men in the late 1870s. Players are vastly bigger, quicker and stronger, placing time and space at a premium.

Might it not be worth asking the Rugby Football Union’s laws laboratory at Cambridge University to study the removal of two of those players? The history of rule changes is an education in the law of unintended consequences, and the im-pact of a six-man scrum would need careful assessment. It might be borrowing from rugby league, but so have several beneficial changes since the 1960s, and emulating a change made by league in 1906 hardly counts as over-hasty adoption.

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