Is there a limit to ‘total rugby’?

Nicholas Bishop Columnist

By , Nicholas Bishop is a Roar Expert


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    Total football. It was the mantra that took over the soccer world in 1974, and has dominated both the thinking, and most of the success in the game in Europe, ever since.

    Remember Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona in the late eighties and early nineties? Cruyff’s arrival as manager revived an ailing club and produced a ‘dream team’ which won five domestic titles and went to European finals on four occasions.

    Barcelona has ridden a wave of unrivalled success ever since.

    The club now enjoys one of the strongest footballing identities in the world, and the academy Cruyff built at La Masia to train and develop young players – based on the great Ajax production line of which he himself was a part – is recognised as the finest example of its kind.

    One of its greatest products, Pep Guardiola, joined the academy at the age of 13, played under Cruyff, and is now the torch-bearer for the Barcajax football philosophy worldwide.

    The founder of the toetaalvoetbal gospel was the Dutch coach Rinus Michels, back in the sixties and seventies.

    Working with Cruyff as a player at Ajax and later with the Holland national side, Michels designed a system to make the most out of his prodigious talents.

    Instead of just playing as an orthodox centre-forward in the front line, Cruyff was encouraged to move out to the flanks as a winger or drop into midfield to deliver killing passes.

    With several other players in the Dutch team, like defender Ruud Krol and midfielder Arie Haan, also able to play more than one position effectively, the theory of the constant interchange of positions was born.

    Even the goal-keeper was no longer immune, and Michels would have Jan Jongbloed covering the outfield beyond his penalty box as the very first ‘sweeper-keeper’.

    Much of this thinking has spread to other sports, and England rugby coach Eddie Jones for one is a known admirer and follower of Guardiola. The number on a player’s back is no longer the most reliable guide to his function on the field.

    When Cruyff returned from an injury to find his number 9 jersey in the possession of a teammate, he happily wore number 14 instead – in an era when players uniformly wore numbers 1 to 11 when they trotted out onto the field!

    The Wallaby defence system, in which very few players defend in their natural positions from a lineout, is one obvious example of how toetaalvoetbal has entered rugby thinking.

    In Australia’s win over the All Blacks in Brisbane, only outside centre Tevita Kuridrani defended in the channel indicated by the number on his back.

    Interchangeability is also a theme with the ball in hand for the Wallabies. Fullback Kurtley Beale often enters the line as a first or second receiver on the interior, while the experiment of selecting winger Reece Hodge at No.10 against Japan was repeated to a degree against Wales over the weekend – even though this time Hodge was wearing the No.11 shirt.

    Reece Hodge

    (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

    The inherent danger of the constant swapping of positions was fully highlighted at Cardiff, with the Wallaby attack often showing an imbalance to one side and losing its real width and potency.

    Two of Australia’s four tries were from close-range and a third came from a defensive breakaway.

    Australia’s first long attacking sequence occurred off a kick reception by Hodge in the fifth minute:

    The attacking shape over the sequence’s nine phases features, for the most part, Samu Kerevi on the left wing and Marika Koroibete on the right.

    Kerevi is the widest attacker on first phase at 4:38 and again on fifth phase at 5:17, and his basic instinct (like that of his centre partner, Kuridrani) is to cut back infield and straighten the line of attack.

    Throughout the entire sequence, Hodge remains in midfield as a provider rather than a striker, and the third frame clearly shows that the Wales defence is already beginning to write off the Wallaby attack on their right – they have cut both Sean McMahon and Kerevi loose in the five-metre channel, knowing they won’t have to defend speed or finishing instincts in that area.

    It also makes their defence on the other side a whole lot easier, and when the ball finally has a chance to reach Koroibete, the attack has run out of space and the ball is turned over.

    Different versions of this scenario recurred with far too much regularity for comfort.

    With Hodge shifted inside to do the exit kicking, alongside Bernard Foley, from Welsh kick-offs, running the ball out of their own 22 was not a real weapon for the Wallabies:

    Kuridrani and Kerevi are the widest attackers out in the first frame, so stretching the Welsh defence in that direction is not a true option, and the situation remains the same as the kicking exchange develops.

    The only change is that Michael Hooper takes up position as the outside chaser on Hodge’s third kick, leaving him vulnerable in the one-on-one with Wales wing Steff Evans – just imagine if it was Rieko Ioane returning that kick, not Evans!

    The chase for Foley’s well-placed attacking diagonals also tended to work better when Hodge was back on the wing, putting his speed to use, not playing inside or making the kick himself:

    In the first couple of frames, Kuridrani does not have the speed to beat Evans to first touch, in the second pair Hodge gets to the ball before both Evans and Leigh Halfpenny, and is unlucky not to ground the ball for a try.

    The result of Hodge’s use as an extra playmaker rather than a finisher was both an imbalance in the Australian attack, and a lack of true width to one side of the field:

    In the Wallabies’ first attack at the beginning of the second half, both Hodge and Koroibete are on the right side of the field, with the two centres paired on the left.

    Right at the end of the first period, Kerevi arguably had an opportunity to take Liam Williams on the outside and score in the corner, but instead chose to step inside and set up another phase of play.

    As it happened, it didn’t matter, because Hooper squeezed over on the opposite side of the field six phases later, but at least on that occasion he had Hodge for company, back in his natural position outside him!

    There is a limit to the interchangeability of positions, however enticing the vision of ‘total rugby’ may become.

    Even the Dutch national side of the 1970s depended on a heartbeat of players who could play their core roles to a very high standard – the midfield crafter and passer (Wim van Hanegem), the pitbull hustler (Wim Jansen) and the box-to-box marathon runner (Johan Neeskens).

    The attraction of adding yet another playmaker from the back three on top of the existing duo of Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale may be a sacrifice to style over substance, particularly if Michael Cheika and his coaching team continue to select the two Ks, Kerevi and Kuridrani, in the centres.

    It means either one will have to spend time – too much time – filling in as the widest attacker or chaser.

    A more balanced arrangement would see Karmichael Hunt at fullback, replacing Kerevi, adding a third pair of hands when necessary in attack, and allowing Reece Hodge to fulfil the more natural requirements of his role out on the wing.

    That is the arrangement I expect to see against England at Twickenham this coming Saturday.

    Nicholas Bishop
    Nicholas Bishop

    Nick Bishop has worked as a rugby analyst and advisor to Graham Henry (1999-2003), Mike Ruddock (2004-2005) and most recently Stuart Lancaster (2011-2015). He also worked on the 2001 British & Irish Lions tour to Australia and produced his first rugby book with Graham Henry at the end of the tour. Three more rugby books have followed, all of which of have either been nominated for or won national sports book awards. Nick’s latest is a biography of Phil Larder, the first top Rugby League coach to successfully transfer over to Union, entitled “The Iron Curtain”.