All Black coach Steve Hansen has claimed that rugby is heading down the path towards boredom in a revealing interview with website Wales Online.
Hansen made the claims during a World Cup scouting mission to the Northern Hemisphere last weekend.
Hansen watched Ireland beat England in Dublin and Wales against France in Paris. He viewed both games as dull, saying too much emphasis was placed by coaches on defences disrupting attacking play. “I think there’s a responsibility on the coaches and the players. We are trying to get defensive lines up really quickly, but I think we’ve probably gone too far with it.”
Hansen lamented “No-one is prepared to take the risk (to run the ball), because they are going to get belted behind the advantage line if they move the ball.”
Hansen’s biggest issue centred on the lack of attacking, scoring rugby, claiming that “there are not enough tries being scored, which is turning the fans away,”
The All Black coach certainly wasn’t treated to many tries at the weekend, with only three scored across the two matches.
The Kiwi’s claims took on something of an urgent tone in relation to the upcoming World Cup, where Hansen said “There are going to be millions and millions of people watching it and then all you’re going to see is people kick goals. If we want to encourage people to watch the game, then scoring tries is what does that.”
I did not see the Six Nations matches last weekend. England, I was informed, were simply unable to cope with the ferocity of the Irish pack at the breakdown and did anything they could to keep themselves from being overrun. That basically included conceding penalties, 13 of them in fact.
I was also told that both games were cagey affairs where neither team wanted to risk making a mistake that could cost them the match.
But isn’t this understandable? For France or Wales, defeat meant their title challenge would have been over for another year. And the pressure of an early Grand Slam decider is unlikely to make players desperate to take a risk and run the ball when a goal will keep the scoreboard ticking over.
In matches of a high level of importance, it’s hardly surprising that the fear of failing to record any points overrides the desire to take risks to produce free-flowing, running rugby.
For me, the bigger question is not whether there isn’t enough running rugby being played, but are forward-dominated kicking battles even boring?
I was bought up on a steady diet of watching Rob Andrew, and later Jonny Wilkinson, kick England to victory for years. So personally, I think there is excitement in seeing two forward packs try to out-muscle each other on a sodden field in order to manoeuvre their kickers into a position to win a vital penalty.
The ARU attempted to address the “problem” of too many penalties being taken at the expense of running rugby during the NRC. The changes were focused around the scoring system, where conversions were increased from two points to three and penalty goals decreased from three points to two.
Brett Mackay’s brilliant statistical article detailing the NRC’s statistics showed that more tries were scored under this scoring format, and that there were less shots at goal than during the previous Super Rugby season.
The major result of these law changes was an increase in set pieces and yellow cards however. This is not the running rugby Hansen craves, but it did result in an increase in tries.
Perhaps this is the solution Hanson is after? After all, as teams get more and more evenly matched and the stakes get higher (like during the knockout stages of a World Cup for example), players will be less inclined to take risks and turn into a pariah. When a try is worth five points, and a penalty is worth three.
In a tight game, a sensible captain is likely to take the three every time.
Those who do not appreciate the rough, attritional side of the game are not wrong, that’s just the element of the game they least prefer. One of the great joys of rugby to many people is that the game is so varied, with a multitude of scoring methods to suit different conditions and styles of play.
So I have to disagree with Hansen and suggest his statement is part of a long-range attempt at mind games.
But that’s just my opinion. What do you think? Do you lust after running rugby, or would a World Cup final decided by the boot be just what the doctor ordered?