From my perch on the periphery of the game I’m wondering whether South African coaches have picked up on the latest trend in rugby and have inculcated it in their teams, especially kickers and catchers.
If it’s not a trend, it should be. If it’s not being practised, it should be.
I’m talking of the “kick-pass” – probably the only way to overcome flat-line defences that cramp space and inhibit attacking players.
With almost every major team in the world, whether in the north or the south, obsessed with defensive “line speed”, rugby has become an ugly, unattractive game. Switch on the telly and you see them. Two teams going through ritual set-pieces before spreading out across the field and endlessly bashing into each other.
The reason is line speed. Teams concentrate extremely hard on closing down the space of the team with the ball, and the “hindmost foot” law at the breakdown has gone out of the window.
Most defenders take up a position at least a half a metre ahead of the hindmost foot, sometimes more, and as the team in possession plays the ball everyone rushes up to stifle a possible attack. Those in the inside channel start off marginally off-sides but the wide players are miles off-sides by the time the ball travels beyond the flyhalf.
This sharp practice flies in the face of the law but like so many other statutes in the book, for instance the ruck law or the forward pass, it is simply not applied.
One thing I have learnt over the years is that you can’t influence World Rugby to change a law and when they do they normally get it wrong – such as trying to fix the crooked scrum feed by allowing the scrumhalf to start off-sides; nicely aligned under his own loosehead, which of course eliminates the crooked feed in that the 9 can simply put it straight under his hooker’s feet! Genius.
Watching in an abstract, distracted way, as I now do rather than tracing the genesis of a try or the hidden and honest toil of a tight forward to convey to readers, the clear impression is that the game, meant to be fast and clever, is choking.
It is looking more and more like league but with the drawback of not having the “six plays” rule in which the ball is turned over to the other side.
The answer for the 15-man game may well be to slightly alter the hindmost foot law. Instead of defenders having to line up behind the hindmost foot, how about decreeing that they have to leave a clear gap of one metre behind the last man in a ruck or maul?
This certainly would be easier to police for the match officials and provide those vital few extra seconds, and thus space, to move in.
But, as I said, getting a law changed by the ruling body is akin to turning an oil tanker… and they might still get it wrong.
So the best way to keep the marauders from “getting in your face” will be to perfect the “kick-pass.” Nothing new, just another way of saying chip-kick, grubber or cross-kick.
With players rushing up in unison there is always space behind them, but the key is not the type of kick but the precision of the kick.
Unsurprisingly the best exponents of finding this space are the Kiwis, with Beauden Barrett leading the way. Robert du Preez of the Sharks, arguably the most effective 10 in South Africa for the last few months, and Handré Pollard have also started making regular use of it.
The aim must be to stop the rush, to turn defenders around, to pull a deep defender up and if functioning well, with the chasers in tune with the kicker, it can be a most potent weapon… and it may even cause defenders to hold back on their obsession with line speed.
But to make it part of a team’s armoury it has to be practised; like a golf swing or tennis serve, for hours on end. What worries me is that in nearly 50 years of reporting on rugby I don’t recall ever seeing a team spend any time on perfecting nifty kicks; clearance kicks or “exits” yes but never the dinky stuff.
Perhaps it is time to forget about running and kick more.