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Waratahs must embrace good rugby, then win

Elisha Pearce Columnist

By Elisha Pearce, Elisha Pearce is a Roar Expert

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    Waratahs player Berrick Barnes braces as he hits the line. (AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)

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    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.

    Winning:

    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.

    Good:

    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.

    Elisha Pearce
    Elisha Pearce

    Long-time Roarer Elisha Pearce joined us as a rugby union expert in 2015. He also works for Fairfax Media and has confused more Roarers with his name than anyone in the history of the site.

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    The Crowd Says (16)

    • Roar Guru

      September 22nd 2012 @ 1:33am
      biltongbek said | September 22nd 2012 @ 1:33am | ! Report

      Nice one Elisha, I think good rugby is balanced rugby, like you say there are times when the pragmatic approach is the right way to go and other times adventurous rugby or chanching your arm is OK.

      For me rugby must always be competitive, no match is enjoyable if one team recieves a hiding, I also demand that rugby must be brutal, I love it when forward packs don’t stand back and go toe to toe with one another, execution or the lack thereof can spoil a game quickly.

      So yeah if the Waratahs can balance their strengths in the forwards and the backs, know when to stick to structure and when opportunity arise to unleash, it will be all good (feels like I am talking about the Boks here)

      Ultimately good rugby is the process, winning rugby will take care of itself.

      • Columnist

        September 22nd 2012 @ 8:57am
        Elisha Pearce said | September 22nd 2012 @ 8:57am | ! Report

        Yep, Bilongtek, balance is a word i like to use as well. Ive got some more on that for next week actually.
        The need to stick to the structure is important too, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for creativity. It is just to emphasise that the team as a whole needs to be working in a particular way, together.

    • September 22nd 2012 @ 5:54am
      AndyS said | September 22nd 2012 @ 5:54am | ! Report

      The problem with adjectives like “good”, “boring” and many others attached to rugby is that they are so imprecise and subjective. What I want to see from Australian teams is confident rugby – confident both in their own skills and the tactical/strategic capabilities of the leadership. Right now I see a bunch of teams seriously lacking in the basic skills, playing game plans designed to cover for those deficiencies and minimise the risk of exposure. It is those skills that need addressing and any team that does so will see improvements in play and results. But if we want a strong and consistent national side, it needs to happen across all teams and therefore probably before they become Super players.

      • September 22nd 2012 @ 1:18pm
        Jutsie said | September 22nd 2012 @ 1:18pm | ! Report

        Nice post.

    • Roar Guru

      September 22nd 2012 @ 6:53am
      Who Needs Melon said | September 22nd 2012 @ 6:53am | ! Report

      Smart rugby.

    • Roar Guru

      September 22nd 2012 @ 8:29am
      Phil Bird said | September 22nd 2012 @ 8:29am | ! Report

      I’d take adventurous rugby over winning rugby. I appreciated quads coopers comments recently on the wallabies needing to play more adventurous footy, and I particularly enjoyed everyone who used the term win ugly at the tahs is now looking like a moron. I hated that concept

      • Columnist

        September 22nd 2012 @ 8:58am
        Elisha Pearce said | September 22nd 2012 @ 8:58am | ! Report

        Win ugly was a stupid concept! As I said in the article, you’ve gotta trust the process of playing good rugby leading to wins. If you try to win without doing that you’ll eventually fall on your face being too conservative and you won’t believe yourself enough.

      • September 22nd 2012 @ 1:22pm
        Jutsie said | September 22nd 2012 @ 1:22pm | ! Report

        As WNM says above, you need to play smart rugby. Its one thing to play attractive rugby its another to run around like a headless chook spinning it wide at every opportunity without respecting the advantage line. Cooper needs to realise this before shooting his mouth of in the press. The kid has the natural talent and potential to be a champion but boy does he need to grow up and obtain some intelligence.

    • September 22nd 2012 @ 1:31pm
      redsnut said | September 22nd 2012 @ 1:31pm | ! Report

      Elisha, of the three things you mention, I’d put teamwork as the most important.

      If the players are not supporting each other and only playing for themselves, imo, the skill and speed mean nothing. You would have a team of selfish individuals who didn’t care a hoot about wether the rugby was good or bad. One skillful and speedy player can’t win a match without the support of the rest of the team.

      If you have the teamwork, then the results just “majically” come along.

      To (probably) misquote it, a team of team players will always beat a team of individuals.

      I think that “good” rugby is the use of the ball which resuts in a win. It is after all a ball game.

      • September 23rd 2012 @ 3:58pm
        post said | September 23rd 2012 @ 3:58pm | ! Report

        A champion team will always beat a team of champions. Fully agree, when you see a whole team clicking and trusting each other , that’s when the magic happens.

        All the Waratahs need to do is hold the ball. People want to see their team at least attempting to make something happen, if your team is just defending all game then its a boring show.

    • September 23rd 2012 @ 11:38am
      Valleys Diehard from Brunswick st. said | September 23rd 2012 @ 11:38am | ! Report

      You make great points here @elishapierce. I will add that any coach under the ARU umbrella (coaching any Aust Super or club team) however competent a player manager and strategic skills integrator will almost always be at a disadvantage due to the ARUs inept management of talent from U7s to Opens. All players have to make that jump from club to Super rugby, so many fail. The 5 provinces deserve far more support in this area. @Gravitybasher authored a great piece, offering the only viable solution that would not bankrupt the ARU.

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