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Hayne at sixes and sevens in rugby's short form

Jarryd Hayne took to the field for his first rugby sevens match for Fiji, and it didn't go too well.
Expert
23rd May, 2016
182
7776 Reads

I have to apologise in advance for cracking and putting pen to paper on the subject of Jarryd Hayne. I’d understand if my car was egged by irate citizens.

Clearly we both believe that the subject doesn’t need any more airtime.

The community at large certainly appears to share that view. The sentiment was hilariously captured by “Dyl Anderson” who opined on Facebook… “Sick of hearing about this bloke – just pick a sport and play it ya flog”. Yep.

In addition, I’ve been having a running Hayne-debate for some five days with a friend (who can at least lay claim to some expertise, having played both senior league and representative union in his youth), so believe me, I have as much Hayne-fatigue as anyone.

My mate and I represent the two audiences of the Hayne story – the side that feels a growing sense of unease at Hayne’s presumption that for his next trick, he might just duck out and pick up an Olympic medal – and those who couldn’t care less and are willing him to succeed. The second camp are motivated in part because it would give a whiff of substance to the outdated but cherished idea among league supporters that league players are inherently superior athletes.

Whatever your position on that spectrum, it can’t be ignored that if Jarryd Hayne wasn’t Jarryd Hayne and was perhaps, say, an anonymous player that we’ll call Joni Vulagi, then he would have gone completely unnoticed at the London Sevens. Except of course for perhaps being critiqued by commentators for some loose offloads, generally untidy work at the ruck and tackle, and the concession of a couple of ham-fisted penalties.

Expert sevens watchers would have immediately picked Joni Vulagi as one of the most likely players to be cut by Fiji coach Ben Ryan before the Rio Olympics, because he wasn’t very good. Unfortunately Joni Vulagi isn’t a global sporting oddity copping miles of column inches. Jarryd Hayne is.

It is this fractured perception which has urgers and sports channels celebrating Hayne’s chase and ankle tap against France, while the bemused realists wrestled with the uncomfortable observation that it was Hayne’s own mistake in not tying up the ball at the previous tackle when the referee called “maul”, that meant he had to make the chase in the first place, instead of Fiji getting a scrum.

My Hayne-fan mate airily dismissed this plain truth in much the same way that a Trump voter dismisses the cost of the US/Mexico wall. “He’ll learn” he said “Sevens isn’t that complicated”. Neither is the presidency apparently.

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The “he’ll-learn” response brings to mind the fantastic scene out of Moneyball when Billy Beane and Ron Washington go to sign baseballer Scott Hatteberg to a new contract at his house.

Sitting in his loungeroom, catcher Hatteberg is taken aback when Beane tells him they want him at first base. Hatteberg has never played first base. Beane makes light of it, saying “It’s not that hard Scott. Tell him Wash”.

Washington looks at Hatteberg and says bluntly, “It’s incredibly hard”.

So is sevens.

Hayne is an amazing athlete, no doubt, but even if we disregard the fact that pretty much every sevens team has a Hayne, and some have two or three, we must realise that it isn’t a lack of athleticism which gets him into trouble, and so a surfeit of athleticism won’t get him out of it.

Hayne has three obvious problems in sevens.

The first is his awkward shape in the tackle both as tackler and tacklee. When being tackled, he struggles to protect the ball effectively without blatantly lying on it or hanging on on the ground. It is the first time he has ever played a game where there is a continuous contest for the ball and it shows. As a result, he prefers to offload and not get caught, but since he hasn’t yet learned when to go into contact, his offloads are sketchy.

As the tackler, the only thing he appears to be sure of is that he can hold the player as long as he wants when they’re both standing up. Once the play goes to ground it’s a lottery because the laws are complex and the interpretations and instincts can’t be learned in a few weeks. His dive over the ruck to flop on a ball at the Australian side was an elementary error, as was his penalty for not releasing the tackled player. These errors won’t get any better under fatigue and pressure.

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Hayne’s second problem is partly fitness related and partly just a lack of game savvy, and it is that he plays very flat at the gain line. Sevens is akin to soccer in the sense that it is often played backwards. Watch a game and look at how often the play will regress fifteen or twenty metres before starting forward again. Experienced sevens players know that a large part of their many kilometres of running is just working back onside to stay in the game.

Playing flat, as Hayne does, means that the ball easily gets behind him and he is then out of the game until he regains his depth. A sevens player can’t be reactive here. They need to anticipate the need for depth, so that they can be there before the play unfolds. Chasing depth and chasing the game as Hayne has done so far is tiring and ineffective.

Finally, in a game with a continuous contest for the ball and with scarce support resources, decisions on when to attack the line are critical. A player taking a ball into contact without breaking the line immediately puts pressure on his team to drive into the ruck to support him, or risk a turnover. Obviously, the more players in the ruck, the less there are to attack, or defend in the event that the ball is lost.

There are several examples, but against Wales, Hayne elected to take on three defenders in a jinking run into traffic resulting in a loose offload, when he would have been better looking to pass to space. Against France, he looped flat around his own player and allowed an intercept, when a more experienced player would have passed and then dropped into the pocket to take a safe pass and restart play away from the sideline.

These are all moments, fleeting seconds that escape the casual observer, but that nonetheless determine matches, especially tight ones against top sides at one-chance knockouts like the Olympics.

Hayne will learn of course, but he has no time. No time to learn the subtleties, and no time to get to the fitness levels required. Fitness is as much about rest as it is about work, and the extremes of workload that Hayne will need to go through to get to parity with the rest of the squad, will risk injury and breakdown.

Sonny Bill Williams, himself a full-time sevens player with the New Zealand sevens team said of sevens fitness training “I thought my days in rugby league were tough. But the first day here we did a beep test followed by an hour or more of fitness games and running. In league we didn’t do much after a beep test. Here I couldn’t get out of a jog after 20 minutes.”

As a final thought, I can’t escape the lack of respect that permeates the whole Hayne approach. So very Gen-Y of him, to just turn up and do what he wants to do. It’s one thing to ignore the naysayers when you’re chasing a genuine dream. It’s another to ignore pretty much everyone as you jump the shark deep into narcissism.

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Anyway, whatever. I’m at peak-Hayne. Just pick a sport and play it ya flog.

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