Is rugby really better in the professional era?

Nicholas Bishop Columnist

By Nicholas Bishop, Nicholas Bishop is a Roar Expert


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    Back in the seventies I used to take the steelworkers bus to school in Wales. I was the only kid on it, but they would always welcome me – and if it was full, someone always made sure I had a seat.

    During the trip they would tell me the stories of their latest rugby adventures in Dublin or Edinburgh – or, if they were lucky, Paris. Wales versus Ireland, Wales versus Scotland, Wales versus France.

    There was emotion shining in their eyes after those long weekends, enough emotion to shrug off the long shifts of unbearable heat and toil at the steelworks.

    Some of the Welsh players, like Bobby Windsor, were steelworkers or miners too, and they would go back to their day jobs and become just ‘one of the boys’ again – at least until next Saturday, when they resumed the mantle of sporting idol, living out the unrealised dreams of the fans.

    Those were some of the greatest days of rugby union. In 1975 104,000 people crammed into Murrayfield to watch Wales play Scotland – 20,000 more than the official ground capacity.

    There was no such thing as an ‘all-seater’ stadium back then; you stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the terraces hoping to catch your next breath in the press or, if you were really lucky, a glimpse of the action.

    There were no toilet breaks, because you could not move. Relief was provided by empty beer bottles, and everyone had their own ‘first aid kit’ in that respect.

    It was the same on the club scene. Hours before the match began thousands from the neighbouring village would march down the high street in an impenetrable phalanx, and the local shop owners would rub their hands, anticipating a roaring trade with their ‘special offers’ for the visiting supporters.

    Supporters would attend club practices in their hundreds too. Those practices were so important that even a Pontypool, Wales and British and Irish prop like Staff Jones would walk eleven miles after his shift at the colliery finished – just to stagger up a steep local hillside called ‘the Grotto’ to the point of exhaustion, swap punches and boots with aspiring wannabes in the scrum and endure a shower of public humiliations from his coach, the legendary Ray Prosser. ‘Pross’ would call Staff ‘fat-ass’ and demote him to the second XV if he made a mistake.

    The sharp sting of nostalgia for that era makes itself felt every time someone who belonged to the golden period of rugby passes on. Last week it was the great Wallaby Ken Catchpole, one of the two best scrum-halves of his time along with Gareth Edwards.

    The difficulty of comparing eras is notorious, especially in respect of a sport which has endured the transition from an amateur to a professional game. But if both Edwards and Catchpole were reincarnated at their athletic peak today, there is no question in my mind that both would be representing their country once more.

    On the playing and coaching front, the beauty of the seventies lay in the jewel of a rare balance between the hemispheres and the rapid pace of innovation in the game which derived from that. The British and Irish Lions had just won successive series victories against the two Southern Hemisphere superpowers, in New Zealand in 1971 and South Africa in 1974.

    While the All Blacks had temporarily lost track of the coaching thread trailed by Fred Allen in the sixties, the British sides had picked it up through the advanced coaching of Carwyn James and men like rugby’s first true ‘performance director’, Ray Williams in Wales.

    It didn’t last very long of course, and the Blacks and the Boks were soon back on top. But for three or four halcyon years the rugby world was in balance on and off the field in its own sweet, politically incorrect way – complete with its flying boots and fists, its seething overpopulated crowds and pitch invasions, its political naiveté and above all its wildly optimistic community spirit. Rugby was perfect in its imperfection for a short time.

    As it’s a new year, let’s choose to suspend time for one week at least and compare those eras side by side by examining how a set-piece play worked back then and now.

    One of the great games in the early seventies was the Scotland-Wales encounter at Murrayfield in 1971, a few short months before the Lions undertook their historic tour of New Zealand.

    Wales were setting the template for that future victory with the quality of their back-line play, based on overlaps generated by introducing their outstanding full-back JPR Williams into the attacking line.

    (Tries at 0:01 to 0:20 and 10:15 to 10:36 on the reel)

    The differences begin with the extreme compression of the ‘amateur’ lineout, which is squeezed into approximately half the space occupied by the professional version; with the wingers throwing the ball into it (Wales’ Gerald Davies at 0:05, Scotland’s Billy Steele at 10:20 on the reel), so that they cannot be involved in the backs move. Even Wales’ blindside winger (John Bevan) is standing in the five-metre corridor to no particular purpose on the Scottish throw on that final try.

    Wales create overlaps and make scores on both occasions against a simple ‘man-on’ defence. John Williams simply surges into the line and Wales achieve the two-on-one situation they are seeking. The only difference is that the Scotland open-side wing stays out with his man in the first instance (allowing Williams to go through the gap inside him), but marks JPR in the second (giving up the overlap outside).

    The inadequacy of the front line defence against overlap plays is matched by the paucity of the second tier, or cover defence. In the first example there are only two cover defenders attempting to make tackles – the Scotland number six on JPR and the number nine on John Taylor after he receives the pass inside from Williams. In the second example there is only one – the Scotland full-back, who has covered across from a starting position in midfield.

    There is of course ample scope for development on both sides in this snapshot from 1971. The forwards, with their ‘amateur’ level of physical conditioning and compressed into that claustrophobic zone near the five-metre corridor, could improve their contribution in second-tier defence; the front line could (and would) use a drift or one-out pattern to cover the full-back entering the line and the blind-side wings on both sides could enjoy a much bigger role on offence and defence rather than just throwing the ball into the lineout, or watching it happen.

    Now let’s move on to 1988, and a Six Nations match between the same two opponents.

    (Try at 32:55 to 33:20 on the reel)

    The attacking situation is similar to the example from 1971, a set-piece (this time a scrum) out near the left-hand touchline. But in this instance the involvement of the two blind-side wings is far more proactive.

    Even though Scotland are using a ‘one-out’ defence with their number ten drifting out on to the Welsh number 12, Wales now have not one but two extra attackers in the line – their red-headed number 15 Paul Thorburn on a decoy run between the two Wales centres and their blind-side wing – number 11, Adrian Hadley – making the critical intervention on the end of the third pass.

    Although Wales number 13 Mark Ring gets a second touch in the movement, the defence is far superior to 1971 in numbers and organisation when Wales right wing Ieuan Evans receives the ball. Scotland full-back Gavin Hastings is blocking the path to the corner, but Evans also has to beat the covering blind-side wing (number 14), the Scotland number eight and number nine and finally a tight forward, number one, David Sole, for good measure.

    As Bill McLaren said memorably in his TV commentary, “Merlin the magician could not have done it any better”.

    Moving on to 2017 and the professional era, let’s see what happened when the British and Irish Lions essayed an overlap play against the All Blacks in the second test of the June series between the two teams.

    (Try at 1:17 to 1:52 on the reel)

    Both sides are missing a player at this left-side lineout, with Mako Vunipola and Sonny Bill Williams off the field on cards.

    The detail in the lineout set-up gives an immediate indication of how much things have moved on since 1971.

    The lineout now fills the entire width of the 15-metre zone, with two defenders, number two Codie Taylor and number nine Aaron Smith, ready to become part of the second tier defence when necessary.

    The Lions too are playing with a full hand, with the blind-side wing (number 11 Elliott Daly) a key part of the attack and first receiver Johnny Sexton looking to get a second touch on the ball.

    Even when the overlap for the Lions right wing Anthony Watson is (somewhat fortuitously) created, there are five All Blacks defenders close to the ball in cover – Taylor and Smith have shifted over from the site of the original lineout along with number seven Sam Cane, and full-back Beauden Barrett and blind-side wing Israel Dagg are already there.

    When Watson goes to ground in the tackle of Barrett and Dagg the situation is in fact better for the defence than it is for the attack, and the All Blacks are suddenly presented with probably their best opportunity to disrupt the movement. The Lions’ scrum-half Connor Murray is forced to take out Dagg at the tackle and there are three Kiwis on their feet (Barrett, Cane and Taylor) facing one solitary Lion (Sean O’Brien).

    With no scrum-half available to clear the ball quickly, this is a prime opportunity to blast the cleaner off the ball with a determined counter-ruck and win turnover. The All Blacks would have been disappointed to miss out on it – what a far cry from 1971 and even 1988.

    The denouement to the sequence demonstrates how quickly the modern professional ‘reloads’ back into the game in a way that would have been inconceivable back in the 1970s and 1980s.

    Israel Dagg not only assisted in the tackle on Watson initially after running the breadth of the field to get to the far edge, he stood up to contest the tackle ball with Connor Murray and create the counter-ruck opportunity.

    When the ball is transferred back out to near sideline, it is none other than Dagg who has run all the way back across field to be the tackler on Taulupe Faletau. If he had been able to complete it, it would have been a truly outstanding example of the work-rate demanded by professional rugby at the elite level of the game.

    The changes from the amateur game to the professional version we now enjoy are stupendous, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the games have little in common, given the advances in organisation, fitness and conditioning that have been made over the last 50 years.

    But the improvements somehow cannot completely erase a nostalgic yearning for the game we used to know and love, which has now been usurped by a recast model saturated with the requirements of broadcasters and marketing men.

    Would Gareth Edwards and Ken Catchpole thrive in the modern game? Of course they would.

    But would they enjoy it as much as the era in which they practised their incomparable art at the base of scrum and ruck? That is much less certain.

    It was the pioneering spirit of the 1970s – its many coaching and playing imperfections and innovations, its off-field political naiveties and its on-field brutalities and beauties in equal measure – which made it such a compelling era in which to both play and support rugby.

    The game was closer to the germ of its beginnings than it is now, closer to the raw rock from which the sculptor starts. Above all, it did not apologise for itself or its origins.

    Is there a way back to that sense of the beginning now that the apologists and sanitisers hold sway? Or has rugby travelled too far towards the distant horizon to ever rediscover its roots? Were they still with us, both Bill McLaren and Ken Catchpole would have had something to say about that.

    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?. He is currently writing articles for The Roar and The Rugby Site, and working as a strategy consultant to Stuart Lancaster and the Leinster coaching staff for their European matches.

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    The Crowd Says (306)

    • January 3rd 2018 @ 6:36am
      Jordan c said | January 3rd 2018 @ 6:36am | ! Report

      I enjoyed late 90s the most not just due to wallaby dominance, but the back line moves were always more adventurous.

      League is consistently Average

      Union today feels consistently under average.

      However a good game of union will always pants a great game of league.

      Nothing better than seeing a rehearsed backline move coming off a set piece in union, I can almost remember Andrew Mehrtens playing the double loop off a lineout maul on the turn of professional era. Looked fantastic now the game is far too conservative which I can respect due to the amount of money and media scrutiny.

      • Columnist

        January 3rd 2018 @ 8:26am
        Nicholas Bishop said | January 3rd 2018 @ 8:26am | ! Report

        A good question raised by your post Jordan – when was the last time you saw an outside centre make a genuine outside break?

        Jonathan Joseph made one or two in his early days for England, before he was analyzed and people started to take it away!…

        • January 3rd 2018 @ 10:47am
          Jordan c said | January 3rd 2018 @ 10:47am | ! Report

          Far too long! And it’s always a great sight seeing a big 13 burn his opposite man on the outside.

          Forgot to say in my original post thank you for your well written article, they’re always a treat.

        • January 3rd 2018 @ 7:56pm
          Mmmmm..k said | January 3rd 2018 @ 7:56pm | ! Report

          I see outside centres making outside breaks just about every week of the year in club rugby.
          Joseph still makes them also so to say “one or two early on” is being a bit silly.
          If you mean it’s less often in international rugby then I agree. Its due to better coaching and better defensive structures along with greater ‘money-pressure’ and professionalism.

          Imo rugby has never been better.
          The one thing I miss is the drop goal. Even at 3 points they are becoming something we see once every 10 games or so. So I can’t understand the imature booing we get in SH rugby when 1 is attempted or the calls for them to become 1 point.
          1 point?! You’ll never ever see them attempted and rugby is better off with them.

          Those that say rugby was better in the past need to watch those old games.
          I think you will be reminded of how much better the game is now.

          • Columnist

            January 4th 2018 @ 7:10am
            Nicholas Bishop said | January 4th 2018 @ 7:10am | ! Report

            Take a look around at the guys who play 13 now in international rugby and you won’t see too many with an outside break – Kuridrani? Crotty? Jonathan Davies? No thank you.

            • January 4th 2018 @ 12:30pm
              Mmmmm..k said | January 4th 2018 @ 12:30pm | ! Report

              Was it ever the case that all centres had a great outside break?
              H.Jones, J.Joseph, G.Ringrose, DLB, D.Penaud and a few others are fast centres capable of making the outside break if given opportunity to do so.

              I get your point but let’s not get too negative about the state of international 13s or the game.
              The truth is that a lot of those guys who used to make outside breaks in past eras would not be making them now. In part because the defence is better and in part because they wouldn’t make the team now to even try and make those breaks.

              There is no question, the game is improving.

              Let me put it this way, if 2 good street fighters fight, you will see plenty of punches connecting and it may be exciting to watch for some but if you train those fighters so they are much better boxers, put in a ref and put more on the line for those involved?…well it probably wont be such a slug fest and some may say that the fights are not improving.

        • January 3rd 2018 @ 8:36pm
          terrence said | January 3rd 2018 @ 8:36pm | ! Report

          Nicholas, I don’t watch much rugby (who can?, life’s too short!), either before the (somewhat) amateur era or after the (somewhat) professional era, but the difference has been minimal in rugby, always, unfortunately.

          Rugby is way too slow, ball not in play enough, too many breaks in play, too many rules (that are overly policed by attention seeking referees) that are basically not understood by the spectators (including followers and commentators), lacks players with personality, has been forever dominated by the northern hemisphere administration that won’t change and take it from a fringe sport in most Commonwealth countries to potentially make it slightly more interesting.

          Otherwise, it’s going OK (the female 7s team?), maybe, I suggest (all 30 to 40 ruggerbuggars in Sydney keep talking about how good the Shite Sheild has been over the past two seasons…?) with reservations.

          • January 4th 2018 @ 2:57am
            Mmmmm..k said | January 4th 2018 @ 2:57am | ! Report

            A fringe sport?

            It’s one of the biggest team sports on earth.

            The rugby World cup is 2nd only to the football World cup.
            The 6 nations is THE BIGGEST anual tourney in the world.

            Players get into the millions per season in this “somewhat” professional era.

            I don’t understand why people say it’s a small sport or a fringe sport. It’s a huge international sport, it’s the biggest contact team sport in the world!

            If you find rugby difficult to understand, I can see how you might get frustrated and bitter.
            I understand it perfectly and love it. It’s not that complicated.
            I guess that’s explained the problem though.

            Rugby is growing internationally in player numbers, spectators, revenue and player payments.

            So yeah, rugby’s doing just fine.

            • January 4th 2018 @ 10:18am
              Taylorman said | January 4th 2018 @ 10:18am | ! Report

              Well said?

            • January 5th 2018 @ 12:28am
              Mmmmm..k said | January 5th 2018 @ 12:28am | ! Report

              Rugby is a mainstream sport. I thought I had explained that?
              I thought I’d explained the fact that it’s the biggest team contact sport in the world.

              I thought I’d explained that the rugby World cup is the 2nd biggest World cup behind football?

              I thought I had explained all those things.

              I know, as you say, some people find rugby hard to understand. I feel for those people and want to help them. I want to explain offside and forward passes to them. Give them the help they need to understand.

              And yes I missed out a letter in my spelling but the personal comments about my education are unacceptable.

              As I said, I don’t understand why people wrongly say rugby is a fringe sport or that it’s doing poorly.

              The 2015 rugby World cup was a massive success.

              According to a ranking (25 world’s most popular sports and 10 most popular sports in the world ) rugby union is the 2nd biggest winter team sport on earth.

              Yet you claim it is “fringe”.
              I’m trying to explain to you the fact that it’s arguably the 2nd biggest winter team sport on earth.

              So why won’t you listen?

            • January 5th 2018 @ 12:48am
              Mmmmm..k said | January 5th 2018 @ 12:48am | ! Report

              And Terrance…

              You’ve named basketball, cricket and football.
              Yes they are bigger sports globally.
              Rugby league is not, it’s not even close.
              Rugby league is bigger in Aus and so the NRL is bigger than Australia’s NPC. Although Super rugby probably is bigger than the NRL.
              Super League is smaller than England’s rugby union comp.

            • January 5th 2018 @ 3:54pm
              terrence said | January 5th 2018 @ 3:54pm | ! Report

              Gee MK, had the extremely bright rose-coloured rugby glasses on there with that reply. Makes readers think you may be part of the rugby problem globally (especially in Australia) and not being involved working towards a potentially brighter future for the rapidly decreasing predominantly British Empire boutique sport of rugby union.

              I gather you have never been able to go to the UK/Europe, even their the 6 nations (usually very predicable results wise) is at best a low rating “anual tourney” compared to the UEFA comps, EPL, Europe qualifiers, La Liga, SPL, cricket, Super League, darts, snooker, lawn bowls. Just buy a paper in the UK, sports pagers the first 10 are soccer, then cricket, league, darts, then maybe rugby.

              Comparing the six nations to the FIFA World Cup, not smart.The FIFA would be the Formula One racing car, rugby the Nissan Pixo (in the showroom because no one really wants to buy it).

              ARU management recognise that they have many problems (financial (its broke!), poor management (a new NZ CEO replacing a bloke that was way out of his depth who couldn’t make a decision, who had no respect of anyone involved in the code, especially high profile ex-players and coaches), poor player depth, decreasing participation (even at traditional private schools), can’t get many games on free-to-air television as it is a poor rater, decreasing attendances, lack of tribalism decreasing supporter bases, becoming more irrelevant compare to rugby league (and AFL), junior clubs screaming for more support/funding instead of the ARU taking a cut of playing fees, ex-Wallabies openly writing letters of dismay at the state of the game nationally, the list could go on forever.

              But hey MK, take another valium and keep saying, ”all’s good” and ‘potentially (but highly unlikely) all will be well.

              PS. thanks for your support Taylorman, much appreciated.

              • January 9th 2018 @ 6:51pm
                Jacko said | January 9th 2018 @ 6:51pm | ! Report

                Terrance if you hate union there is so many other sports for you to choose to watch…..Only Football is a bigger sport so unfortunately you will have to be satisfied with a lesser sport than Rugby Union but that is 100% your choice…All those things you say about Union being small etc will be amplified in the new sport you choose….AFL…League etc are such minoe sports compared to Union that I cant help but feel you will be somewhat disapointed with the numbers playing and the revenues generated…however please enjoy any minor sport of your choice…and let us enjoy the second most popular sport on the planet

              • January 10th 2018 @ 5:14pm
                Bakkies said | January 10th 2018 @ 5:14pm | ! Report

                ‘UK, sports pagers the first 10 are soccer, then cricket, league, darts, then maybe rugby.’

                League? The London dailies barely cover the sport.

                A lot of those comps you mentioned are only on Sky and/or BT. By the way he said annually. The FIFA World Cup is every four years not one so he is not comparing.

                The total attendance figure for last years Six Nations tournament was 996,000

      • January 3rd 2018 @ 8:21pm
        sheek said | January 3rd 2018 @ 8:21pm | ! Report


        “However a good game of union will always pants a great game of league”.

        This type of comment is often argued by rugby fans. However, the problem here is this – great games of rugby tend to be few & far between, while league, never reaching the same heights, nevertheless provides a more stable product week-in, week-out.

        I would just wish the great games of rugby happened with a little more consistency.

        Re the late 1990s, MacQueen’s Wallabies weren’t all that adventurous, despite having a backline to kill for. The 1999 RWC for example, was won by a disciplined adherence to a particular retention-style attrition rugby, rather than spinning the ball around.

        However, it was noticeable after winning the world cup, that the Wallabies were more adventurous in 2000 & 01. Yet despite their great teams, they had to win quite a few in the last minute or so.

        But at least they did! Something that happens too infrequently today.

        • January 4th 2018 @ 3:10am
          Mmmmm..k said | January 4th 2018 @ 3:10am | ! Report

          Great games in any sport are few and far between.
          Good games happen every week in rugby.

          Enjoy a completely one sided cricket match where you pretty much know who’s won on day 1 of 5? That happens just as often as a close game imo.

          I get the feeling that many who claim the game was better or that it’s not very good anymore have simply lost the love for the game.

          Having watched the game for over 30 years I pretty sure that players are faster, stronger, better. The balls in play more. It cleaner, crisper and better reffed.
          TV coverage is better. NH rugby is much better due to many factors including better surfaces.

          I often watch older games and laugh at how poor the skill level is, how terrible the reffing was, how messy the games were, sometimes played in little better than swamps.

          Rose coloured glasses.
          Take them off and realise how fantastic the game has become.

          In a few years when they sort out the TMO it will be even better.

          • Columnist

            January 4th 2018 @ 7:07am
            Nicholas Bishop said | January 4th 2018 @ 7:07am | ! Report

            Rose coloured glasses.
            Take them off and realise how fantastic the game has become.

            The modern game can be very good, it can also be just as dull as the worst example forty years ago (despite the better ball-in-play time) – don’t fall for the oldest illusion, that because we are in the present time it must therefore be ‘progress’…

            • January 4th 2018 @ 8:46am
              Ruckin Oaf said | January 4th 2018 @ 8:46am | ! Report

              Nostalgia on the other doesn’t have any illusory effect at all right ??

              • January 4th 2018 @ 4:13pm
                Mmmmm..k said | January 4th 2018 @ 4:13pm | ! Report

                Imo that’s a huge part of it.
                People used to enjoy it more and so look for reasons why the game isn’t as good.
                The game is better despite their lessened enjoyment.

              • Columnist

                January 4th 2018 @ 6:30pm
                Nicholas Bishop said | January 4th 2018 @ 6:30pm | ! Report

                The game is better despite their lessened enjoyment.

                As per my reply to you elsewhere M, this is the paradox that needs to be explored. ‘The game’ is not just a matter of what goes on on the field, but off it – its relationship to the world around it.

              • January 4th 2018 @ 7:06pm
                Mmmmm..k said | January 4th 2018 @ 7:06pm | ! Report

                And it’s never been better on and off the park.

                Australia isn’t the world and rugby is getting bigger in every sense world wide.

                As I’ve said below.
                People in Australia are turning on the game because of other reasons, not the quality of the game itself…

                Although by spreading its resources too thin the game suffered greatly.

                Funny thing is that when they address this by dropping a team they are crucified for doing so.

              • Columnist

                January 4th 2018 @ 6:19pm
                Nicholas Bishop said | January 4th 2018 @ 6:19pm | ! Report

                I don’t have any problem with nostalgia in its rightful place RO. If I did go around cursing the modern game I would hardly be doing what I do!

            • January 4th 2018 @ 11:07am
              In Brief said | January 4th 2018 @ 11:07am | ! Report

              I think the constant evolution of rugby is what makes it interesting. If you think back to 2007 the world cup was an appalling spectacle. Yet today there is a real attacking intent creeping back into the game.

              You see it in the Aviva premiership across many teams but in particular with teams such as Gloucester under Ackerman, Sale and Newcastle. Taking risks is now ok. Even some Top 14 teams are joining the fray with La Rochelle and Pau for example endeavouring to play open exciting rugby. Although the skills don’t always match the endeavour the players have been given licence to make mistakes which counters your comment above.

              More interesting then this is the evolution of rugby being played by the the All Blacks and many super rugby teams. I see almost a hybrid game evolving which is incredibly dynamic and not constrained to specific set phases of play.

              The cross field kick, the regathering of the kick off, the off load, the passing, the sheer variety in play is really interesting. In the future I see this almost hybrid AFL/ rugby style game which is in a sense ‘back to the future’ if you look at the history of the sport becoming more prevalent. It is also entertaining and finally in the professional era the owners and financers of the game are demanding this type of return.

              • Columnist

                January 4th 2018 @ 6:21pm
                Nicholas Bishop said | January 4th 2018 @ 6:21pm | ! Report

                Fair summary IB – no arguments with that.

            • January 4th 2018 @ 12:39pm
              Mmmmm..k said | January 4th 2018 @ 12:39pm | ! Report

              No Nicholas.
              I not fallen for anything.

              As I said.
              Players are simply better.
              Reffing is simply better.
              Surfaces are simply better.
              Coverage is simply better.
              Coaching is simply better.
              The ball is in play more.
              It’s cleaner.

              I have watched games for a long time and I’m confident that peoples feeling towards the game have changed but the game has never been better.

              So don’t fall for the old theory that because you don’t enjoy it as much as you once did that the game has not improved.

              • Columnist

                January 4th 2018 @ 6:28pm
                Nicholas Bishop said | January 4th 2018 @ 6:28pm | ! Report

                I have watched games for a long time and I’m confident that peoples feeling towards the game have changed but the game has never been better.

                And here is the nub of the issue. If the game is so much better than it was (and I don’t dispute most of your claims) then why doesn’t it inspire more affection among its support base – both potential and actual??

                ‘Better’ is a relative term, and it also depends on items which you may feel are not connected – like the game’s relationship to the community of which it is part.

                By all means, improve ball-in-play time and use 2G surfaces. But if you don’t really connect with your community anymore it is a castle built on sand.

                Plenty of evidence on the Roar lately to illustrate that point.

              • January 4th 2018 @ 7:01pm
                Mmmmm..k said | January 4th 2018 @ 7:01pm | ! Report

                Is the support base not growing world wide?
                Yes, it is.

                You are looking at it from a very Australian POV imo.

                Aus is not the team it was 20 years ago and the passion for the game in Aus from that era has gone.
                Is that rugby’s fault?

                The term “better” is only relative to what it was “better” than in this instance imo.

                But yes, Australians were cursed with success in the late 80s and early 90s. Now they expect it as if it’s an entitlement.

                Robbie Deans was ripped to shreds in this country for winning 58%.
                Yet history indicates that over the last 20 years that is a little over par.
                The point is that rugby in Aus is judging itself against a golden era. They expect too much and self-hate when these expectations are not met. They look for scapegoats and attack the admin or any poppy taller than the rest (see M.Hooper).

                The truth is that it’s not the game or the way it’s run in this country. It’s that the fan base (potential and existing) expect too much and when that doesn’t happen they take their bat and ball and storm off muttering about how the game sucks anyway.

                It’s the games fault right?

                Not in any other country. Funny that.

              • Columnist

                January 9th 2018 @ 8:09pm
                Nicholas Bishop said | January 9th 2018 @ 8:09pm | ! Report

                MMMM…. (below).

                Nice theory, but sadly I’m not an Australian, so the straw man collapses in a heap!

            • January 9th 2018 @ 6:59pm
              Jacko said | January 9th 2018 @ 6:59pm | ! Report

              Nicholas I enjoy the modern game far more than the pre 96 pro era…Surely thats my choice? Just my preference for a better skill level and a far faster game…And Im not falling for any illusion…just enjoying todays game

              Dont you older guys remember the games played in absolute mud pits….The stadiums that leaked even when it wasnt raining…..The pathetic facilities….etc…etc

              And thats just the fans experience

              As I say…give me the modern game any day of the week

              • Columnist

                January 9th 2018 @ 8:07pm
                Nicholas Bishop said | January 9th 2018 @ 8:07pm | ! Report

                I do enjoy the modern game Jacko, like you – otherwise I doubt I’d spend so much of my time analyzing it and talking about it!

                However I would qualify that by saying that the experience of watching games in the amateur era was far richer, in terms of what the game really meant to the players, the supporters and the communities around it – probably because it was all voluntary ‘work’, not paid.

                But you cannot go back in time – we have what we have, a better game in a poorer social context.

    • Columnist

      January 3rd 2018 @ 7:28am
      Geoff Parkes said | January 3rd 2018 @ 7:28am | ! Report

      Hi Nick

      Best wishes for a great 2018! Fascinating article thanks, it’s a shame we can’t take the best aspects from the professional era and combine them with the best from the amateur era.

      One of the things that stuck with me most from all of the research for my book was David Humphreys at Gloucester explaining how their younger players have little knowledge and passion for the game outside of their own club requirements and their own personal career development.

      In that respect rugby in 2018 reflects how society has developed, and while those of us who remember Catchpole, Edwards, Carwyn James and Fred Allen etc risk sounding like grumpy old men, it is indeed a shame that the values, ethos and love for the amateur game have largely been lost.

      But it is also important not to despair about it – this is how life works, things evolve and there will always be plenty to love and enjoy about rugby, even if, as you say, some aspects bear little resemblance to golden eras of the past.

      • Columnist

        January 3rd 2018 @ 7:45am
        Nicholas Bishop said | January 3rd 2018 @ 7:45am | ! Report

        Cheers Geoff!

        Yes, perhaps the most important feature of amateurism has been lost – namely that players did a lot of other significant things in their lives because they weren’t paid to just play rugby.

        A lot of professional players will tell you that they have a very narrow lifestyle, and few interests outside rugby if they don’t deliberately cultivate them.

        That aspect is adjustable, but with the pressures to win as they are it can very easily be lost…

        • January 3rd 2018 @ 2:58pm
          sheek said | January 3rd 2018 @ 2:58pm | ! Report


          Agree with this 100%. The modern rugby player, concerned mostly with his own needs, & cocooned nan entirely professional sports environment, lacks the all-round life skills of his predecessors.

          Unfortunately we can’t turn back the clock, but guys being paid to play on weekends but also working alongside everyday people during the week led to more rounded people.

          • Columnist

            January 3rd 2018 @ 6:27pm
            Nicholas Bishop said | January 3rd 2018 @ 6:27pm | ! Report

            I don’t think it’s a danger confined to rugby either Sheek – it’s problem generally with only ‘one thing’ demanded from a person, repeated over and over again. Ever narrower specialization.

        • Roar Rookie

          January 3rd 2018 @ 11:04pm
          Huw Tindall said | January 3rd 2018 @ 11:04pm | ! Report

          Was it Kevin Sheedy in the AFL at Essendon who introduced a policy where his players had to be either studying part-time (could study anything!) or working part-time (again in anything) whilst they were on his roster? Basically forcing the players to live a little closer to other people their age giving them a better perspective on how lucky they to be professional footballers but also to prepare them for life after football. I always thought this was a great idea for any pro sporting club – especially for the younger players who may go straight from school to the pros.

          • Columnist

            January 3rd 2018 @ 11:07pm
            Nicholas Bishop said | January 3rd 2018 @ 11:07pm | ! Report

            It remains a great idea – thanks Huw…

            • January 3rd 2018 @ 11:59pm
              Fin said | January 3rd 2018 @ 11:59pm | ! Report

              I studied at University with Sean Hardman in the 90’s and we are still pretty good mates today. In fact most of his best mates are not Reds or Wallabies players. They are the guys he went to school with and played club rugby with from under 8’s right through. When he didn’t have Reds commitments he was often running out the water for his club team – 2nd, 3rd, 1st grade it didn’t matter. Sometimes he would be doing it even if he was playing for QLD later that night!
              Hardman has made a smooth career transition away from rugby after being part of the Reds organisation as a player for over a decade. He still holds the record for most number of games for QLD.
              Anyway Nick, for some players the balance away from the game is still in abundance.

          • January 9th 2018 @ 7:04pm
            Jacko said | January 9th 2018 @ 7:04pm | ! Report

            Huw that happened in the rugby amature era…Many yesteryear stars were Dr’s Lawyers etc and many studied during their playing seasons then had to finish off their degrees later in life…I think the first ever Rugby world cup captain became a DR…I know he retired early to finish his degree as he was offered a Rhodes schollarship

            • Roar Guru

              January 9th 2018 @ 8:48pm
              Rugby Fan said | January 9th 2018 @ 8:48pm | ! Report

              Still a few doctors in the professional game. Brendan Venter, Jamie Roberts and Felipe Contepomi come to mind. In the last days of amateur rugby, Jonathan Webb played for England, before becoming an orthopaedic surgeon.

              • Roar Guru

                January 9th 2018 @ 9:36pm
                Harry Jones said | January 9th 2018 @ 9:36pm | ! Report

                Dr Jannie du Plessis

                He offered to adjust Pocock’s neck …

      • January 3rd 2018 @ 2:16pm
        robbo999 said | January 3rd 2018 @ 2:16pm | ! Report

        Geoff the thing I miss most from the seventies is the speed at which the scrums are formed and fed. Watch either of the two seventies games mentioned and the time taken from a scrum being called toit being fed is rarely more than 20s.

        I was in the crowd for both those games (they neatly bookened my university years) and the atmosphere was beyond anything I have experienced at a rugby game since (with the possible exception of the second-half of the 2001 Lions game in Melbourne.

        I read your book over Christmas. Many thanks a great read.

        • Columnist

          January 3rd 2018 @ 6:00pm
          Geoff Parkes said | January 3rd 2018 @ 6:00pm | ! Report

          Hi robbo

          Many thanks for taking the time to post an on-line review – much appreciated and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

          I’m a little bit conflicted about the scrums. It became a very serious issue in NZ and elsewhere in the 80’s and those who ran the game had no choice but to implement drastic action to try to stem the rate of serious injury. It’s been largely successful so it’s hard to argue against what the game has lost on one hand being more than offset by safety outcomes on the other.

          But yeah, those big boofhead forwards… they do mess around and waste a lot of time don’t they?

    • January 3rd 2018 @ 7:29am
      Rob said | January 3rd 2018 @ 7:29am | ! Report

      I’d rather watch lower skilled and lesser fit attackers against relatively poor defence than umpteen one-out phases and pick-and-goes with the predictable second man play thrown in.

      • Columnist

        January 3rd 2018 @ 7:33am
        Nicholas Bishop said | January 3rd 2018 @ 7:33am | ! Report

        I think this is the problem Rob. The field has effectively shrunk as players have become fitter and faster, and the old-fashioned ruck has diminished in importance – i.e. it attracts far fewer players on both sides. This makes the character of the game very different from what it was back in the seventies and eighties.

        • Roar Guru

          January 3rd 2018 @ 9:32am
          PeterK said | January 3rd 2018 @ 9:32am | ! Report

          very true

          It was the poorly organised and very poor defence that made the old games look so good, it was easy to play attacking rugby even with poor short passing at the man, long passes weren’t required.

          The highly skilled defences make games more dour and predictable than they were

          • January 3rd 2018 @ 10:22am
            Taylorman said | January 3rd 2018 @ 10:22am | ! Report

            Really? Yet the scorelines of today yield a lot more trues than those of the 70’s.

            • Roar Guru

              January 3rd 2018 @ 11:14am
              PeterK said | January 3rd 2018 @ 11:14am | ! Report

              The ball is in play more now, a lot more.

              They dropped the ball a lot more then.

              The passing was less skilled in not being able to pass long , nor much in front.

              The ball was kicked out a lot more, there were a lot more (a lot lot more) scrums.

              What was easier was breaking tackles or beating players but they had a lot less opportunities to do so.

              • January 3rd 2018 @ 3:05pm
                Dave_S said | January 3rd 2018 @ 3:05pm | ! Report

                To be fair, some of that poor handling reflects the conditions. Games are rarely played on boggy fields these days, and never with leather balls.

              • Roar Guru

                January 3rd 2018 @ 3:15pm
                PeterK said | January 3rd 2018 @ 3:15pm | ! Report

                very true

              • January 4th 2018 @ 12:56am
                andrewM said | January 4th 2018 @ 12:56am | ! Report

                Well yes..they did kinda feel like leather after a cold and wet game!

              • January 4th 2018 @ 1:31am
                Bakkies said | January 4th 2018 @ 1:31am | ! Report

                and the longer stocks which are tougher on your ankles on boggy fields so the forwards how to wear high cut boots.

          • January 3rd 2018 @ 12:22pm
            ethan said | January 3rd 2018 @ 12:22pm | ! Report

            Make penalties only worth two. Encourage teams to run more and thus fatigue more. This will open up defences more easily to make the game a little more reminisce of old.

            If it will encourage more penalties, the yellow card should sort that out.

            • Roar Guru

              January 3rd 2018 @ 2:06pm
              PeterK said | January 3rd 2018 @ 2:06pm | ! Report


              also most technical penalties you cannot kick a goal.

              mandatory yc on every 3rd penalty of any type within the 22

            • January 9th 2018 @ 12:48pm
              Wobblies said | January 9th 2018 @ 12:48pm | ! Report

              and then teams like Aust and Eng will just continue to give away regular penalties, as we already seem them do anytime they are under pressure… silly idea.
              better answer would be to make penalties outside the 22 only worth two unless its for foul play.

          • January 3rd 2018 @ 7:54pm
            sheek said | January 3rd 2018 @ 7:54pm | ! Report


            I don’t necessarily agree here.

            Sure, the defences weren’t particularly strong back in the 70s, but the attack wasn’t the fleet-footed type we see today either.

            Generally speaking, it’s all relative, & attack & defence will follow each other more or less.

            What I loved about the past was the variety. There seems so much more of it than today.

            People bag the 5 tackles then kick of rugby league. But seriously, how does rugby union differ significantly today with its one-out hit-ups ad nauseam?

            • January 4th 2018 @ 12:57pm
              In Brief said | January 4th 2018 @ 12:57pm | ! Report

              Sheek the one off hit ups are a blight on the game, but I see less of them today (although still too many) than a few years ago. From what I can see the variety is making a come back. This is less evident at international level given the margins for error are less.

        • January 3rd 2018 @ 5:20pm
          savant said | January 3rd 2018 @ 5:20pm | ! Report

          Totally agree Nick and Rob. I played in the 70s and every time I got out of a ruck I would look up and the backs had acres of space because we were coached to commit most of the forwards to every breakdown. Nowadays Im sure the 2 or 3 forwards leaving the ruck see very little space, just a line of bodies on either side. And yes they are fitter and better organised and they stand flatter making less space available. To me its the biggest single change I have observed in rugby – the backs have less time and space and more defenders to deal with. This can make some games (ie Super Rugby) quite boring at times. However we still do see some great set moves, perhaps less often, and of course the Kiwis developed unstructured counterattack and offloading to combat the boring defence.

          • Columnist

            January 3rd 2018 @ 6:31pm
            Nicholas Bishop said | January 3rd 2018 @ 6:31pm | ! Report

            Yes it is different now Sav. Typically a mix of forwards will commit to a ruck now, which also means you need both forwards and backs who can play with the ball outside it. So now we have some forwards, like Kieran Read, who have prob better ball-handling skills than most backs!

        • January 4th 2018 @ 11:28pm
          StuM said | January 4th 2018 @ 11:28pm | ! Report

          Faster? Like, physically faster runners now? How?!?

          • Roar Rookie

            January 9th 2018 @ 1:18pm
            piru said | January 9th 2018 @ 1:18pm | ! Report


    • January 3rd 2018 @ 7:54am
      Josh said | January 3rd 2018 @ 7:54am | ! Report

      Before i start let ne say this isnt a call to combine league with union but i would like to see union trialled with 2 less players. This would reduce the benefit of increased fitness and make the field bigger withput going all the way down to 7. In saying that what id also like to see is scrums kept to 8 players and lineouts to involve a min of 7 for a set lineout (quick lineouts to remain). This keeps the forwards locked in. I would also however like to ensure that scrums are reset less often so we have great scrums but with only 1 reset max. To avpid teams rorting the situation if the scrum i reccomend that the ref feeds the scrum not the halfback. A little crazy i admit but thats what comments sections are for.

      • Columnist

        January 3rd 2018 @ 8:07am
        Nicholas Bishop said | January 3rd 2018 @ 8:07am | ! Report

        Before i start let ne say this isnt a call to combine league with union but i would like to see union trialled with 2 less players.

        In time it may very well come to this Josh. The body types and roles of different players are already becoming more ‘standard’ and interchangeable, as they are in League. Restricting substitutions is another option, to let the effects of fatigue take their course more obviously.

        The recent changes to tackle law are moving the game away from more traditional aspects – by limiting competition after the tackle – and towards longer series of play-the-balls, like League but without the six tackle limit!

        • January 3rd 2018 @ 8:28am
          soapit said | January 3rd 2018 @ 8:28am | ! Report

          not a bad idea but how do you do it. tell all the flankers of the world theyre now competing with the number 8’s for one spot? would taje some guts

          i would say as well its not too surprising when things go closer to league. theyve had 100 years to work on rules that suit professionals whereas a lot of rugbys set up relied on amateurism and isnt really ideal for a pro game

          • January 3rd 2018 @ 8:59am
            Crash Ball2 said | January 3rd 2018 @ 8:59am | ! Report

            A 7 wearing an 8 jersey? Never happen.

        • January 3rd 2018 @ 8:38am
          Ruckin Oaf said | January 3rd 2018 @ 8:38am | ! Report

          Sounds like somebody is trying to nobble the AB’s – reduce competition after the tackle, reduce the turnover opportunity.

        • Columnist

          January 3rd 2018 @ 8:44am
          Geoff Parkes said | January 3rd 2018 @ 8:44am | ! Report

          This is a key challenge isn’t it? Rugby’s ethos that a contest for the ball is paramount, versus the implied need to provide entertainment appropriate for today’s audience.

          We can see the mess that cricket has got itself into, it’s pure form, test cricket steadily being consigned to the dustbin because it isn’t judged ‘entertaining’ enough, and the calendar being overrun by $ generating short-form competitions. New audiences are being found but is the game overall better for it? Hardly.

          AFL is going through the same thing – big lumbering ruckmen are being extinguished from the game and there is an obsession with trying to eliminate ‘unsightly’ wrestling for the ball.

          In rugby, somewhere along the way it was deemed that two packs of big forwards competing for the ball was ‘boring’ and so the game is evolving to where all players are attackers and perform similar tasks. Is the game better for this? Sometimes yes, to see forwards running and handling like backs is great, but the evolution towards a game that resembles league is problematic.

          Professionalism deservedly allows for elite players to be well paid. But it has also led to significant advances in coaching, conditioning, nutrition, fitness (and dare I say… analysis) that, combined with the increasing influence of self-interested marketers, broadcasters and sponsors, has resulted in unintended negative consequences.

          • Columnist

            January 3rd 2018 @ 8:49am
            Nicholas Bishop said | January 3rd 2018 @ 8:49am | ! Report

            There are always ‘unintended negative consequences’ Geoff… and rugby is no different considering that the push to professionalism was so poorly coordinated in the two hemispheres. We are still suffering the consequences of that one, as you know.

            It would be a great pity if the old (core) rugby principle of it being ‘a game for players of all shapes and sizes’ were truly lost, that’s for sure…

            • January 6th 2018 @ 6:46pm
              Mitcho said | January 6th 2018 @ 6:46pm | ! Report

              AFL players want to be 90 kgs and 6ft2. Most leagues are about 100kgs as are union backs. The 10kg difference is mostly a sprint/power vs middle distance running requirement.

              Japanese rugby and club rugby and top 14 are a lot easy for a mug like me to identify with. I had some skills and technique but never played a game which looked like modern test rugby.
              The game is straightforward in principle but many never really agree with most penalties and there are too many cards. Perhaps a 20 metre or 30 metre penalty but keep the players on the ground.
              Rucking was a great loss to the game and ref set scrums are Ill conceived and dangerous. Ref can control the scrum by demanding no friggin around. Penalising the weak scrum and expecting less disruption is fundamentally wrong

              • January 6th 2018 @ 8:21pm
                Fionn said | January 6th 2018 @ 8:21pm | ! Report

                What laws exactly was it that ‘lost’ rucking?

              • January 6th 2018 @ 10:08pm
                Mitcho said | January 6th 2018 @ 10:08pm | ! Report

                Fion its been dead for a few years. Maybe just the no boots? I was taught to go over the top of everybody. Your guys and there’s and if someone is trapped you cover their head. We all have a touch of the boot when playing or not. We even ingrained it into the wingers.

              • Roar Guru

                January 7th 2018 @ 11:59pm
                Rugby Fan said | January 7th 2018 @ 11:59pm | ! Report

                In 2010, Brian Moore wrote a piece where he said he couldn’t find any specific change, or any incident which had sparked a review. The kind of stamping which produced horrific facial injuries was always illegal.

                You were allowed to use the boot to clear the ball but referees did start getting tough on anything which looked like bringing the foot straight down. It got to the point where any rucking ran the risk of looking like stamping or trampling, so players stopped doing it. Especially when any contact with the head became illegal, because you can’t always tell with moving bodies.

          • Roar Guru

            January 3rd 2018 @ 9:39am
            PeterK said | January 3rd 2018 @ 9:39am | ! Report

            I don’t believe most people forwards competing for the ball at lineouts or rucks is boring.

            Scrums and mauls yes. Partly due to actually lack of competition in these pieces.

            The main issue with rucks being boring are that they in fact limit competition but allow them to be slowed down so it is the worst of both worlds.

            If competing is to be limited then then must be allowed to be made quick and any players slowing it down penalised heavily, or encourage proper competition so forwards do attack rucks instead of fanning out in defence.

            You shouldn’t be able to slow or kill rucks but be able to win the ball at them.

            • Columnist

              January 3rd 2018 @ 9:51am
              Nicholas Bishop said | January 3rd 2018 @ 9:51am | ! Report

              The competition is determined by one simple reality – that the first defender in is allowed to play the tackle ball with his hands. That dictates the action of the support players in attack. If that defender cannot play the ball with his hands, a form of rucking once again becomes possible….

              • Roar Guru

                January 3rd 2018 @ 10:08am
                PeterK said | January 3rd 2018 @ 10:08am | ! Report

                thats the trouble though , refs allow defenders after a ruck is formed to slow the ball down, look at the ab’s attack a ruck , they always go for the ball with the hands even after a ruck is formed and it is not penalised often

                It would be great to make players stay on their feet at rucks as per the laws and make them compete using feet.

                I don’t mind a jackler being allowed to use their hands before a ruck is formed , it is a good method of competing and adds variation, the key is before a ruck is formed

              • January 3rd 2018 @ 5:27pm
                savant said | January 3rd 2018 @ 5:27pm | ! Report

                Any changes to get more forwards committed to rucks would be good for the spectacle of the game, allowing more space for the backs. Bring back the flying wedge!

              • January 3rd 2018 @ 8:40pm
                soapit said | January 3rd 2018 @ 8:40pm | ! Report

                unless it sacrifices too much quick ball

                my suggestion would be to make any player that assists in the tackle to become part of the ruck

            • January 3rd 2018 @ 5:36pm
              Ruckin' Oaf said | January 3rd 2018 @ 5:36pm | ! Report

              “Scrums and mauls yes…………….”

              I’ve watched rugby with family from the Northern Hemisphere and they find scrums and mauls enthralling.

              A well executed scrum or driving maul is as exciting to some poms as watching a sparkling backline move is to some down under.

              • Columnist

                January 3rd 2018 @ 6:34pm
                Nicholas Bishop said | January 3rd 2018 @ 6:34pm | ! Report

                Well scrums and mauls are exciting when they are well-executed, aren’t they? 😀

              • Roar Guru

                January 3rd 2018 @ 6:55pm
                PeterK said | January 3rd 2018 @ 6:55pm | ! Report

                I enjoy watching scrums and mauls, not constant scrum resets though.

                I was reflecting commonly read complaints about scrums and mauls not my own feelings.

              • January 3rd 2018 @ 7:18pm
                Ruckin Oaf said | January 3rd 2018 @ 7:18pm | ! Report

                Hey PeterK

                Yep I reckon a lot of Aussies would say that scrums and mauls are boring.

                But it’s a global game and a lot of us Aussies forget that. Especially considering the strength of league in this country which is something of a global anomaly

              • January 3rd 2018 @ 8:36pm
                Ruckin Oaf said | January 3rd 2018 @ 8:36pm | ! Report

                “Well scrums and mauls are exciting when they are well-executed, aren’t they?”

                Hey Nik,

                Yep – and so are back-line moves, yet if an outside back knocks on nobody calls for back-line play to be scrapped or restricted.

                A couple of poor scrums however ………………………….

        • January 3rd 2018 @ 12:33pm
          ethan said | January 3rd 2018 @ 12:33pm | ! Report

          Restricting interchanges is a good idea. 8 on the bench, but only 4 or 5 allowed. Naturally would result in a more fatigued game. Coaches would also be wary of interchanging too early in case injury struck, and would make changes later.

          In an era of contracts and player welfare its hard to see those involved in the game agreeing to it, but it would certainly open the spectacle up a bit.

          • January 9th 2018 @ 7:09pm
            Jacko said | January 9th 2018 @ 7:09pm | ! Report

            Just make it a 90 min game…that brings in Fatigue

        • January 4th 2018 @ 1:35am
          Bakkies said | January 4th 2018 @ 1:35am | ! Report

          ‘In time it may very well come to this Josh. The body types and roles of different players are already becoming more ‘standard’ and interchangeable’

          Won’t happen Nick while there are scrums and lineouts in Rugby. With the trained front rower law you won’t see many Tom Youngs (for those that don’t know Tom was originally a centre) convert to the front row.

          • Columnist

            January 4th 2018 @ 7:03am
            Nicholas Bishop said | January 4th 2018 @ 7:03am | ! Report

            The top two hookers in Scotland – Stuart McInally and Fraser Brown – both started life as 7’s Bakkies. Even scrum and lineout specialist have been eroded to a certain extent. Legal lifting for example allows teams to pick more explosive aerial athletes rather simply the tallest ones… The process of standardization will probably be gradual but it will continue nonetheless…

            • January 5th 2018 @ 1:04am
              Bakkies said | January 5th 2018 @ 1:04am | ! Report

              They were forwards originally though. Not surprisingly Youngs biggest weakness is his lineout throwing.

              In League you have ex wingers like Ruben Wiki finishing their careers in the front row, Andy Farrell played lock and five-eighth, halfbacks like Andrew Johns playing rep games at hooker. You just won’t get that in Rugby.

              Jerome Kaino’s one off trip to the row against Ireland shows that talented backrowers are a long way off becoming full time locks.

              • Columnist

                January 5th 2018 @ 3:23am
                Nicholas Bishop said | January 5th 2018 @ 3:23am | ! Report

                Yeah how long was Tom Youngs a centre for Bakkies? Did he play any first team games for Tigers there?

              • January 5th 2018 @ 2:40pm
                Bakkies said | January 5th 2018 @ 2:40pm | ! Report

                Up until the age of 22 when he was in the second team at Leicester. Heyneke Meyer was Leicester coach and did what he couldn’t do with CJ Stander convinced Youngs to convert to hooker.

              • Columnist

                January 5th 2018 @ 6:26pm
                Nicholas Bishop said | January 5th 2018 @ 6:26pm | ! Report

                Ah, okay.

                To go back to the original point, it’s doubtful that positions will ever be as interchangeable in Union as in the League examples you note – at least unless the two codes merge somehow – but I think we are already beginning to see players who could probably could have managed the change. Michael Hooper and Kieran Read are to my mind clearly players who could play centre if they had started there, and Pierre Spies prob should stuck to the wing rather than switch to number 8!

        • January 4th 2018 @ 1:02pm
          In Brief said | January 4th 2018 @ 1:02pm | ! Report

          While some aspects of the game do come together there are massive gulfs in the way the games are played. I see rugby league as a much more conservative game where very little creativity is permitted. Making mistakes, not completing sets, going out of play are all cardinal sins. Meanwhile rugby is moving more and more towards a hybrid dynamic game of football where the physical aspects of the game are frequently broken up by spectacular passing, kicking and trickery that can only exist in a sport where possession remains somewhat fluid. That’s not even mentioning the different approaches to player welfare, head high tackles etc.

          • January 5th 2018 @ 1:07am
            Bakkies said | January 5th 2018 @ 1:07am | ! Report

            ‘I see rugby league as a much more conservative game where very little creativity is permitted. ‘

            Well in the NRL it is. There is more freedom in the Super League where you often see players run or offload early in the tackle count or on the last tackle.

      • Roar Guru

        January 3rd 2018 @ 12:22pm
        RobC said | January 3rd 2018 @ 12:22pm | ! Report

    • Roar Rookie

      January 3rd 2018 @ 7:58am
      nothing if not critical said | January 3rd 2018 @ 7:58am | ! Report

      Hi Nick, great article as usual.

      I was a kid in Brisbane during the 70s and remember going to Ballymore after school with my father when visiting national teams played Queensland and watching from the hill. The atmosphere was so charged and raucous i’ve often thought how the current spectacle pales in comparison.

      I started to tune out from rugby this past year because of a few factors: fed up with the current national coaching team, oversupply of the product (you can watch Aus. rugby from feb to dec), and the overall sameness of the product

      This year I might not go to any Reds’ games – would rather go to NRC matches instead. There’s still a rawness and unevenness there that makes it exciting.

      • January 3rd 2018 @ 9:25am
        Boris said | January 3rd 2018 @ 9:25am | ! Report

        I’ll back your last point about the NRC. It seems to hold a few endearing aspects of amateurism that have been lost at the pro levels above it. That is very attractive to me.

    • January 3rd 2018 @ 8:11am
      Cynical Play said | January 3rd 2018 @ 8:11am | ! Report

      Nick, you have again brightened a dull rugby day.

      The wonderful tribalism of those older games, with real people playing for love and glory. The attacking skill in the backlines on the highlights are outstanding.

      “…one of 3 policemen in the side…” classic!

      other observations, all desirable …
      less sea-gulling from the half-back
      less TMOing
      scrums re-set in a jiffy
      no dreary endless rolling mauls
      real side-burns…

      Last years Lions v ABs was the most enjoyable rugby for me, in recent years, because of the wonderful tribalism and the passion. It is hard to find in the modern era of mercenary player recruitment and player ego.

      Great Stuff !!

      • January 3rd 2018 @ 8:28am
        riddler said | January 3rd 2018 @ 8:28am | ! Report

        cp.. dooley, richards and who else for the pommies? for the life of me now can’t remember.. but just your words bring back mclaren’s voice as we huddled around the tv on low volume after we had snuck into the tv room after all had gone to sleep.. priceless memories of the great game..

        • January 3rd 2018 @ 2:15pm
          Perthstayer said | January 3rd 2018 @ 2:15pm | ! Report


          Better still Ackford outranked Dooley (by several levels) which showed teh game to be the leveler we know it as

      • Columnist

        January 3rd 2018 @ 8:29am
        Nicholas Bishop said | January 3rd 2018 @ 8:29am | ! Report

        I think that’s why so many people go on tour to support the Lions CP – however cynical the marketing exercise, it still summons the great ghosts of tours past, and that is still lifeblood to the game today…

        As you say there was still an air of tribalism about the NZ-Lions series, one that has to some degree disappeared from other traditional contests like NZ vs Bokke for example.

        • January 3rd 2018 @ 2:56pm
          jim boyce said | January 3rd 2018 @ 2:56pm | ! Report

          Nick – The other thing that has disappeared is the game of the touring side against the provincial side. This was part of the life blood of rugby in the amateur time. The finance of the national unions now dictates televised stadiums and these games now rarely happen.There was a play written about the famous Munster defeat of the All Blacks . Most NZ tours used to open up at Gisborne against Poverty Bay., and people came from everywhere to get a taste of the new touring team.A similar situation existed in South Africa, with tours starting on the veldt to acclimatize. A tour in NZ and S Af had a building excitement for fans.
          How are you going with ” Brilliant Orange ” ? The fitness to practice ” Total Rugby ” was out of reach in the amateur period.

          • Columnist

            January 3rd 2018 @ 6:35pm
            Nicholas Bishop said | January 3rd 2018 @ 6:35pm | ! Report

            I suppose time is a factor too Jim, what with tours becoming ever shorter to meet the demands of a crowded calendar.

      • Roar Guru

        January 3rd 2018 @ 9:43am
        PeterK said | January 3rd 2018 @ 9:43am | ! Report

        the backlines actually lacked skills.

        Look at the passing in 71, no long passing bar the scrumhalf, passing to the man not in front and the players receiving were static.
        Despite this a lot of dropped ball.

        Yes they ran the ball very well but mainly due to such poor tackling, very easy to break or beat tackles.

        Agree that lineouts and scrums were quicker which is better.

        That said it is a fact that the ball is in play nowadays a lot more than it was.

        • Columnist

          January 3rd 2018 @ 9:48am
          Nicholas Bishop said | January 3rd 2018 @ 9:48am | ! Report

          Passing skills were a lot better and quicker in 1971 in fact Peter – the offside laws at set-piece were not as generous as they are now. Given the advantages of modern conditioning and support programmes, backs like Gareth Edwards, Mike Gibson, Gerald Davies, John Bevan and JPR from those 1971 Lions would prob be a cut above in precision skills compared to today’s versions.

          • Roar Guru

            January 3rd 2018 @ 10:03am
            PeterK said | January 3rd 2018 @ 10:03am | ! Report

            fact is they didn’t have the support programmes.

            Barring the scrumhalf I don’t see any long passing from the backline.
            Also nearly all of the passes are to the man and not in front which shows a lack of skill.

            I do agree the passing is quick though.

            I don’t agree the passing skills were better in 71 than now. I don’t see backline moves at pace anywhere close to what the ab’s execute regularly with long fast passes at full pace from one end to the other.

            • Columnist

              January 3rd 2018 @ 10:06am
              Nicholas Bishop said | January 3rd 2018 @ 10:06am | ! Report

              Those backs in ’71 could get the ball from one side of the field to the other without cut-out passes quicker than the backs of today could do it even if they were allowed to miss men out! Guaranteed.

              Not too many blokes around now who can use the pass to beat the man, as John Dawes used to be able to do then.

              • Roar Guru

                January 3rd 2018 @ 10:10am
                PeterK said | January 3rd 2018 @ 10:10am | ! Report

                agree that fast through the hands is better, and I should have been more precise in my description.

                When I say backline moves at pace I mean the pace of the runners not the speed of the passing, the backs in 71 would not have been passing whilst running at the pace the players do now.

              • January 3rd 2018 @ 10:39am
                Taylorman said | January 3rd 2018 @ 10:39am | ! Report

                Yes but I put that down those sides simply having better individuals than they do today and its no coincidence that the 71 and 74 Lions are unrivalled by any professional sides of today from the NH.

                And I include the current and 2003 english side who even in dominating the SH sides did so with the boot and not through overpowering sides with tries. They scored something like 11 tries in 14 wins of the 15 win run, one bok match a blowout. Wilkos boot combined with the tight tactics were key there.

                The 74 side particularly dominated from 1-15.

                The pioneering tou mention didnt really occur in the 70s for NZ. Late 70s there were signs of it but Harts Auckland and Wyllies Canterbury sides from 83 blew the game open, leading to the unbeaten, and more importantly very heavy tryscoring side of the 87 cup and after. No side has had the domination of that run in terms of heavy wins until the later AB sides.

              • January 3rd 2018 @ 12:05pm
                Taylorman said | January 3rd 2018 @ 12:05pm | ! Report

                On that though Nick the directoon of northern rugby was looking so good in the 70’s. Such a shame it was based on the backs of a few legendary players. At the time we thought that was the norm.
                Wasnt till the third test in 77 where we won 19-7 in Dunedin despite letting go greats like Batty and Going that we thought the threat wasnt going to continue. From there things started to turn, from narrow wins to a gradual surge in the mis 80s.

              • Columnist

                January 3rd 2018 @ 6:45pm
                Nicholas Bishop said | January 3rd 2018 @ 6:45pm | ! Report

                Had a quick look and my records say 74 tries in 26 game a between start of 2002 and end of 2003 for that England side Tman – and that is removing blowouts against Uruguay and Georgia in the 2003 WC…

                I don’t think the match in Wellington was typical of the English style of the time – far better to look at the game they won against Australia shortly afterwards. That team could play 15-man rugby and was by no means a typical English product!

                In response to your other comment a lot of the failure to develop goes back to the 1977 Lions. They had enough ball to dominate two or three Test series but the back play had deteriorated so much by then that they couldn’t exploit the simplest of attacking situations consistently.

                Probably also about that time NZ began to play the 15-man game in earnest.

              • January 4th 2018 @ 3:59am
                Taylorman said | January 4th 2018 @ 3:59am | ! Report

                Yes re 2003 side there are two sides to that team. One, bar the one blowout vs SA, was the try scoring was ‘particularly’ poor. Compare your stats vs just the main 3 SH sides… all wins.

                The try rate is markedly lower than thematches vs non SH sides.
                Now thats to be expected… to a degree.

                But the difference is staggering to the point that its clear the side had two philosophies… a tight as 10 man game vs SH sides and a very wide game vs everyone else.
                Wilkos penalty counts in those SH matches were the major difference and from memory bar the one SA blowout England were outscored in tries in more than half those matches… and this is all ones they won!

                As a comparison the ABs are never going to be outscored in a run of 15 wins in close proximity.

                Wilkos influence, combined with the ability to deliberately put the side in a high number of kickable penalty positions, defined that side in terms of it SH run, including the 03 World cup and final, which is a classic example.

              • Columnist

                January 4th 2018 @ 4:27am
                Nicholas Bishop said | January 4th 2018 @ 4:27am | ! Report

                I think you’re trying too hard to bend the evidence to suit your theory Tman!

                In the period under discussion, England beat NZ (twice), South Africa (twice) and Australia (three times). They did not lose to any of the three SH giants in that time.

                Try counts were +3, -5 against NZ, +6, -5 against Australia, and +8, -0 against South Africa. They scored 17 tries and conceded 10 over the seven games.

                England were still averaging about two and half tries per game, which is not too shabby.

                New Zealand probably enjoyed a greater try-scoring capacity than England overall, but they were not as complete a team,and their defence was nowhere near as good as England’s (or for that matter Australia’s). Phil Larder and John Muggleton were the top two defence coaches in the world at that time, and that was the secret ultimately to England’s success between 2001-2003 (and why those two sides reached the 2003 final).

              • January 4th 2018 @ 10:30am
                Taylorman said | January 4th 2018 @ 10:30am | ! Report

                Im referring to the 15 win run. Havent revisited the stats but one match stood out where England scored something like seven tries. Remove that and the rate is poor. Remember this is a completely dominant run… 15 wins to none.
                One would expect a much larger rate of tryscoring but Wilkos penalty count is ‘unusually’ high.

                My point being that backplay, when compared with the 71/74 sides, given the relatively lower rates back then anyway, was non existent in terms of contributing to thecwin sequence. The ABs for example would never have such high penalty counts and low try scoring rates in such a run. Remember this is best ever stuff.

                And its typified by the lack of genuine great backs Wilko, and not for his try scoring creativity, and Robinson the only true great backs out of that period. Others were useful but nothing like the 70s side which had seven or eight names that are regularly slotted into ‘best’ lists.

              • Columnist

                January 4th 2018 @ 6:41pm
                Nicholas Bishop said | January 4th 2018 @ 6:41pm | ! Report

                My point being that backplay, when compared with the 71/74 sides, given the relatively lower rates back then anyway, was non existent in terms of contributing to thecwin sequence. The ABs for example would never have such high penalty counts and low try scoring rates in such a run. Remember this is best ever stuff.

                I don’t see why it’s necessary to compare England of that era to the All Blacks Tman. I’ve spoken to a number of the coaches in that team and they knew they weren’t a great attacking team, only really had one outstanding individual in Jason Robinson. They were decent on attack but not great.

                But they were the best all-round team and that’s what was reflected in their results against SH opponents. They had the best defence, the best kicking kick game, and a very strong forward core built around Johnson and Dallaglio and Hill. They also had the best coaching group in the world at that time.

                Dominance is dominance, there are no set criteria you have to meet.

              • January 3rd 2018 @ 5:41pm
                savant said | January 3rd 2018 @ 5:41pm | ! Report

                The ball didnt help back then. I remember heavy leather balls that got heavier and lost shape on wet days. Todays balls dont take on water or lose shape. The spiral pass didnt go as far back then and wasn’t reliable when the ball got wet. I think this contributed to fast passing in a way as you would just grab it any old how and shovel it on. But I disagree that players cant use passes to beat men these days. Cooper does it fairly regularly. But its harder because the defences are better not because of the passing skills. Outside backs still try to to get their shoulders outside their man.

              • January 3rd 2018 @ 8:22pm
                Highlander said | January 3rd 2018 @ 8:22pm | ! Report

                Didn’t Jonny W score 86pc of England’s points in the 2003 RWC

                Source – your book with phil larder?, but that’s doesn’t sound right

              • January 4th 2018 @ 1:42am
                Bakkies said | January 4th 2018 @ 1:42am | ! Report

                ‘And I include the current and 2003 english side who even in dominating the SH sides did so with the boot and not through overpowering sides with tries’

                They powered through SA through tries as no smart team (even that England side) would take them on physically.

                It was smart for them to beat Australia and NZ back then by keeping the ball off the ground to take fetchers like Holah, McCaw, Waugh and Smith out of the game and neither side was strong physically in the tight and at scrum time.

                In the Six Nations they played an offloading game as they sapped the energy out of their opponents.

              • January 4th 2018 @ 10:36am
                Taylorman said | January 4th 2018 @ 10:36am | ! Report

                Yes that sounds more familiar, dominance to me is running away most matches regardless of what they do. Although they won 15 straight vs SH sides, it was still tough, where most matches could have been lost. Ghey didnt, to their credit, but man many went to the wire and if not for wilko many would have been lost.

              • January 4th 2018 @ 10:58am
                Fionn said | January 4th 2018 @ 10:58am | ! Report

                I guess using that logic Djokovic wasn’t dominating Nadal in 2011/12 despite winning 7 matches in a row against Nadal because only two were comfortable straight sets wins..

                What matters is that they went undefeated. England may not have dominated in every individual match, but they inarguably dominated the southern hemisphere sides in terms of results. The facts alone prove this.

              • January 4th 2018 @ 3:20pm
                Taylorman said | January 4th 2018 @ 3:20pm | ! Report

                Who said they didnt?

              • Roar Guru

                January 4th 2018 @ 12:29pm
                Rugby Fan said | January 4th 2018 @ 12:29pm | ! Report

                I see Taylorman’s favourite hobby horse is getting another run.

                The easiest way to understand how wrong it is to describe that England team of 2000-2003 as a “10 man rugby” side, is if you actually WATCH THE GAMES.

                In the 2001 Six Nations, England destroyed France 48-19, scoring six tries. Just a couple of months earlier, that French side had beaten New Zealand 42-33.

                If you think that side didn’t have world class players in the back line, then it suggests you never really saw them in action.

              • January 4th 2018 @ 3:19pm
                Taylorman said | January 4th 2018 @ 3:19pm | ! Report

                Again youve not kept up with it rugby. I said there were two distinct styles, vs SH and vs non SH sides. France, last time I looked were not in the SH.

                That is what made the side so interesting. They played VERY expansively vs non SH sides and VERY cautiously vs SH sides. Crunch the numbers for the 40-43 wins period and theyre compelling.

                SA at the time were poor anyway, losing to most top sides at the time.

                Wilko had a massive influence on those SH wins, and credit to him, its what made him a great player.

              • January 4th 2018 @ 3:32pm
                Taylorman said | January 4th 2018 @ 3:32pm | ! Report

                And you cant bring who beat whos and compare in this exercise. Its about Englands wins.

                NZ put 50 on both SA and Oz on 03 where England beat oz by a drop goal on extra time.
                What does that tell you? Nothing.

                NZ put 50 on Wales who beat England in 03.
                What does that tell you?


                Its the nature of Emglands wins vs SH and non SH countries which makes the side interesting. Its rare that a side can have two completely different gameplans. Penalties and obtaining field position were critical vs the SH yet not required otherwise.

              • Columnist

                January 4th 2018 @ 6:45pm
                Nicholas Bishop said | January 4th 2018 @ 6:45pm | ! Report

                NZ put 50 on Wales who beat England in 03.

                Huh? When?

                England didn’t have two completely different gameplans Tman. They were just far better than anyone else in the NH at the time (except France), esp in terms of fitness and conditioning standards.

              • Roar Guru

                January 4th 2018 @ 7:27pm
                Rugby Fan said | January 4th 2018 @ 7:27pm | ! Report

                England didn’t use two different gameplans against southern hemisphere sides and northern hemisphere sides. You’d know that instantly if you took the time to WATCH THE GAMES, rather than attempting to reconstruct them from the stat book.

                The reason to mention the 2001 French result is not to try and play Top Trumps but to drawn attention to a period where England’s attack was at it’s zenith. France were one of our strongest rivals in this period, also capable of beating New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. While those three teams couldn’t defeat England, France managed it twice – in 2002 and 2003 – making them the only side to so during the four calendar years of 2000-2003. The 2002 match was pretty much the only time England lost by being outhought, rather than through their own mistakes.

                If England had planned on changing tactics to cope with a perceived bigger threat, then it would have been against France, not the southern hemisphere sides. Indeed, we did. Woodward’s preferred centre partnership was Greenwood and Tindall. In the 2003 Six Nations, and World Cup semi-final, he used Catt instead of Tindall against France (switching back to Tindall for the final). Greenwood and Catt were the centres in 2001.

                You evidently didn’t see seen much of England during this period but you surely must have watch the 2002 Twickenham match against New Zealand. Where on earth is the evidence of England playing a cagey game there? If anything, they got caught up in the occasion and almost let New Zealand back in. It was the first time England had faced New Zealand since 1999, so if England were ever going to have employed a different gameplan against southern hemisphere opponents, then that would have been it. They didn’t.

              • January 4th 2018 @ 3:25pm
                Fionn said | January 4th 2018 @ 3:25pm | ! Report

                ‘Yes that sounds more familiar, dominance to me is running away most matches regardless of what they do. Although they won 15 straight vs SH sides, it was still tough, where most matches could have been lost. Ghey didnt, to their credit, but man many went to the wire and if not for wilko many would have been lost.’

                You’re clearly implying they didn’t dominate SH sides, Tman.

                They did dominate SH sides.

          • January 3rd 2018 @ 5:59pm
            mzillikazi said | January 3rd 2018 @ 5:59pm | ! Report

            “Passing skills were a lot better and quicker in 1971 in fact” An interesting observation, Nic. I have always felt that those ’71 and ’74 players were something special for any era.

            I would add John Dawes in there too. I have a book somewhere ..”The Lions Speak”, with contributions from the coach and leading players, and Dawes was given great credit as a key passer/timer of the pass in the team…..I suppose what is now called a playmaker, though there is more to that role than merely being a good passer of the ball