A few days ago I was scanning the Internet – or doing my job, it’s a fine line – and I saw that the NSW Waratahs had appointed Michael Cheika as their new head coach.
Within approximately 11.2 seconds I’d sent a text to some of my buddies advising them of this most important piece of news. One of my mates, clearly a workaholic, wrote back four hours later asking whether the Waratahs would play “good, winning rugby.”
I replied that I’d be happy with the Waratahs to play ‘good’ rugby for a year and make sure that becomes part of the psyche before the ‘winning’ part was expected from me.
But that got me thinking.
Which is more important: good rugby or winning rugby? There are so many conflicting thoughts about how these two ideas merge, intersect and play off one another. It’s hard to know exactly what to think.
Would supporters have complained if, somehow, the Waratahs won the Super Rugby competition while playing a brutal but safe, drudging style similar to the Bulls during their successful campaigns?
It’s clear that the money flowing into sport as a whole, not just rugby, has influenced what is acceptable and even necessary from teams and individual players.
Cash from television, more lucrative contracts, pricier admissions and the myth that life ends at retirement from professional sport are incentive for all kinds of corners to be cut.
Players do whatever it takes to ensure their relevance and status. Coaches are looking out for their own jobs constantly and therefore look for the easiest way to ensure security. Winning ugly is job security. It is simpler, less risky and keeps the pay cheques coming.
I think the insider perception is winning uglier usually makes the scorecard closer. That is easier to digest in the case you do lose.
Understanding that mentality doesn’t take too much of a leap. We’ve all cut corners if it means mitigating risk and providing more security.
Taking it to an extreme; I can even understand, to a point, people who dope in sport. Winning and the cash that accompanies this is the ultimate goal now. Rules and fair play are just obstacles to be overcome on the way.
You are a mid-level investment banker that sees a potential advantage in the market. When you weigh up the moral implications there are clear reasons to turn the other way and continue on your merry way. But what if you aren’t caught? Would you take the moral-low ground to secure your future? We know that many bankers would and have.
A professional sportsperson is in the same boat. The choice could be summarised this way: continue on in professional mediocrity until a wunderkind turns up and makes you obsolete; or, do whatever it takes – including performance enhancing drugs – to get the most out of your abilities, perform at your peak and prolong your career. Which one do you choose?
Sport is not in a bubble, it is a reflection of society and our values. Those values lean towards success and money. All of these influence how winning is perceived.
Where does the ‘good’ rugby come into it? I love brilliance and being dazzled. No one is going to turn that sort of rugby down on the face of it. But if we examine this in the light of being victorious it seems a little short-sighted.
It is widely considered that the QLD Reds have been the most exciting Australian Super Rugby team of the last few years, and I wouldn’t disagree there. But personally, and I’m sure a lot of close rugby followers would agree, I think the QLD Reds definitely played the most exciting rugby the year before they won the Super Rugby title.
Sure, there were times during their Championship tilt they were breathtaking and daring. But if you look back at the statistics and at the game tape you’ll find they spent many games playing pragmatically with the aim of not allowing the opposition room to breathe. Many games saw the team deployed with instructions to pin the enemy back in their corner – not a bad move at all against some teams. Their match against the Stormers is one that stood out in that manner.
I don’t want this to sound like an indictment against the Reds play during that season, it’s just interesting to note when asking what good rugby really is about. Building on that idea, I think people would recognise that early this season the Reds possibly believed in their own ability to tear shreds off a team as their key to winning and that backfired on them, especially when injuries mounted.
Playing pragmatically is occasionally the best way to ensure victory.
A parallel could be drawn between this structured, measured style and the way England pulled Australia apart in the most recent Ashes.
What pops out immediately about that series is the way Alistair Cook completely dominated the series from beginning to end; occupying the crease for hour upon demoralising hour and grinding the attack into submission.
He didn’t attempt to blow Australia out of the contest. It was a matter of acknowledging the weaknesses of the opposition and his strengths; locate where they overlap and play in that window. Cook didn’t improvise or take unnecessary risks. He didn’t do a whole lot more than take runs off the pads and the puncture the off side semi-regularly. It was effective and laid the foundation for victory. This mode of restraint was particularly intelligent at the GABBA, where Australia usually dominate the first test and a greener pitch catches attacking batsmen off guard.
Back to the rugby now, and after a fair bit of thought what stands out to me as ‘good rugby’ is most often evidence of threethings: speed, skills and teamwork.
A rugby side that can display those first two qualities in the context of the third foundational element pleases me most.
At times kicking the ball is the skill, chasing is the speed and the ability to force mistakes, hunt in a pack and pressure the opposition is the teamwork.
On other occasions the speed is a full-back returning a kick with verve, skill is the offload to a supporting number 8 and the teamwork is the quick recycle when he is brought down five metres out, followed by making the most of the overlap to score.
If I can see those things fairly obviously I would usually give a team a pass mark and hold to the belief that in time the wins will follow.
Playing better obviously means you win more often, but you need to trust the process getting there without focusing too much on the winning itself.
In the era of professionalism some teams, the Waratahs for instance, have struggled to maintain a distance from the backdrop of other things that come along with it. Board members, crowd sizes, tactical adjustments, statistics and player involvement have sometimes found themselves in the way.
It is the job of Michael Cheika to balance the ‘good rugby’ and ‘winning rugby’ when he takes over the side. It’s not going to be easy.
As long as I can see speed, skills and teamwork I’ll be happy enough.