The Rugby Championship enters its final block of games. A couple of days early in fact, with the Bledisloe Cup series bursting to life for the year tonight.
This last block of games represents the last chance for a team to attempt a breakaway of sorts – or a continuation of the tightest tournament in memory, which could require the most convoluted of tie-breaking methods and may still end with joint winners. Which would be a new kind of history befitting of this year’s series, if we’re honest.
But as good as the rugby has been, and as intriguing as the series has been this year, there have still been plenty of things creeping into or well-established within the international game that just really annoy us.
And frankly, it’s time for us to blow off some steam with a good, old-fashioned rugby rant.
So, and with the invitation to join us in the comments, please allow us to drag our soapboxes into place…
Question 1: What really grinds your gears about the game now or where international rugby is heading?
I was tempted to address the wider role dieticians are now playing in team preparation but instead, will address the frustration around World Rugby’s inability to step outside of, and around, its cumbersome governance and operational processes, and pick off some of the low-hanging fruit around the way matches play out.
Into the vacuum steps kickers eating up large chunks of the match. Emiliano Boffelli is kicking beautifully but I’ve managed to finish reading War and Peace during his preparation.
Water breaks that have sprung up out of nowhere; halfbacks dicking around tickling the ball back inside the caterpillar, and the referee eventually yelling “use it” without ever once pinging them for not immediately doing so.
And extended chats between TMOs and referees about stuff that can be dealt with far more quickly by the referee on his own, with anything beyond that to be put on report for a citing commissioner to deal with.
I’m not one of those demanding that the game be sped up needlessly – rugby must remain a game for all shapes and sizes – but some of these things are absolute no-brainers.
Things that will get more out of the game without fundamentally changing it, and that – most importantly – will provide better value for fans.
Perhaps more than in any other sport, rugby followers continue to critique the calibre of games as if they were Michelin Star restaurants and it is getting worse.
Yes, a tight match between the human backboard Novak Djokovic and the never-say-die Rafa Nadal might be so grim and fierce the style points diminish, but very few spectators complain that it lacked fireworks as long as it was contested with all the fury of clashes of styles.
A supreme wrestler like Khabib Nurmagomedov tries to deaden the striking of Conor McGregor so that the fight is crablike; yet it brings the biggest purse in MMA.
In basketball, one team tries to create a 120-119 game because they have three point shooters spread on an arc, never approaching the shot clock, whilst the grind-and-bang shutdown opponent tries to walk it up and compress it to a 90-89 score. Very few true basketball pundits long for all teams to adopt the former, because it would be reminiscent of the doldrums of the NBA when offence ruled and defence was optional.
But every Sunday, rugby watchers rate tough, hard-fought Tests or club contests as if each phase were a small plate of deconstructed foam.
As if the only moral and aesthetic good of our sport is perpetual attack and sure points, a happy flow of smooth rucks inexorably leading to inevitable Michelin masterpiece moments, truffle oil tries and laminated lineouts. Anything less and the rugby critic pounces and denounces.
“Dour, it was” (of a glorious 12-8 fight in which no easy points were on offer).
“Dull and indigestible” for an old school slugfest: is that rugby ethos?
“Hard to watch” does not befit a game in the rain where the correct tactics were used (Sydney: South Africa 24 Australia 8) and rare opportunities were taken with locks offloading and scoring.
When did we get so gabby and bourgeois?
Great teams often do negate each other into fascinating stalemates. If that’s icky or lacks the texture you like, maybe find another way to enjoy the hard-knocking, snot-smashing, me-or-you, space-denying, constant possession and possessed demonic and angelic game we love. Love rugby as it is.
At Easts Rugby Club in Sydney last week, in the rain, I enjoyed the hell out of an 8-8 match.
Every man was trying his best to dominate his opponent. Those little individual contests were the thing to watch.
Football fans subsist on 0-0, 1-0, 3-1 matches and thrive. They seem to have enough money and interest in their game.
Why are we such style snobs?
Returning to the issue of the inconsistency of the teams to maintain a line of play from one week to the next seems redundant to me but it is what has attracted the most attention in this edition of the Rugby Championship.
Another thing that caught my attention was the different criteria of the referees and the way they conduct the matches. For those of us who watch the two games on each of the dates, it is inevitable to fall into the notoriety of
the different ways of understanding the infractions of the parties.
Some of the post-match comments are the most striking when the arguments are that one team adapted better to the referee’s interpretations than the other and therefore was able to capture what was prepared or trained during the week on the pitch.
We have not seen decisive errors on the part of the referees, but enough to make a punctual criticism. And the quality of the matches in my opinion was affected by the different interpretive criteria of the rules.
With World Cup 2023 just around the corner, the rugby governing entity should do something urgent to at least reduce the breadth of the criteria, to bring them to more acceptable levels and thus enhance the quality of the matches for the good of the spectators.
They are the ones who move the numbers for the existence of professional rugby.
When I asked this question of the guys, I instantly had in mind the seemingly needless self-injection of the TMO on games – highlighted by that crazy situation in the Adelaide Test a few weeks back where despite a try being awarded to Kwagga Smith, and the conversion even being taken, we suddenly had TMO Brendan Pickerill intervene before the restart to look at the possibility of a deliberate knock-down by Noah Lolesio.
And it served no purpose! The try would still have stood.
After the moment in question, there was one further Springbok phase, a Wallabies turnover and then two more phases, then a Springbok turnover, another ruck, then the line break and the try. Four phases and two turnovers.
And referee Paul Williams called it knocked back live – which he then reiterated after nearly two minutes of replays.
That’s just bollocks.
But that’s not what brings me upon this soapbox. A comment earlier in the week about the on-screen countdown clocks for scrums and kicks in the United Rugby Championship got me thinking further, and frankly, I don’t know why World Rugby haven’t mandated it already.
In the URC, kickers have 60 seconds for a penalty, and 90 seconds after a try is awarded for a conversion. And 30 seconds to set scrums. The countdown clocks are displayed on the broadcast and on video screens at the grounds.
And it works. The Sharks took too long over a first half penalty kick and gave up a scrum to the Stormers in a game, which resulted in the Stormers drawing the game on full-time. Fans can see the time, and players are being held to it by referees.
But it’s been around for a lot longer than that. Jonny Sexton lost a shot at goal after taking more than 60 seconds over a penalty in a Top 14 game for Racing 92 in 2015! That game with Clermont finished in a 13-13 draw!
Why it hasn’t been adopted in Super Rugby and internationals, I do not know. I know it’s now being discussed in a Super Rugby context, but why has it taken so long?
There’s always talk about stopping clocks and all that, but it’s not needed. Just enforce the current guidelines, put a clock on display that everyone can see, and time in games will be saved. It just will.
And don’t even start me on further infringements after advantage has been awarded.
Many a punter, coach, officials and players have lamented the at times ‘sluggish’ nature of the modern game, referring to overly pedantic officiating and player stoppages of varying degrees. There seems to be much agreeing to this issue amongst the common rank and file, but we see the governing bodies make what appear to be counter-intuitive decisions in opposition, such as designated water breaks, during the middle of the winter months no less.
It’s not like the access to the holy water has been denied for the balance of the match as the seemingly growing number of hi-vis water boys/assistants/coaches/nutritionists/managers/physios/brokers would indicate.
There are many helpful suggestions to explore in this regard. Brett touched on one in his recent Tuesday piece as well as esteemed guests on The Roar Rugby Podcast around fatigue and substitutions as an example, yet it seems these conversations are not gaining much traction with those who count.
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It is, of course, not the sole responsibility of the governing bodies to see this through. A unified shift in attitude from all teams and players to ‘get on with it’ along with a more determined and authoritative officiating stance would make immediate improvements.
The punters can also help with fewer streakers. In the end, the answer is in our hands to get the game flowing as it should be, and would save my wife having to tell me off for swearing at the television and inadvertently teaching my children new verbal forms of expression.
Question 2: How will your team make its first steps toward wrapping up The Rugby Championship this week?
Because it’s so hard to see the All Blacks losing in Auckland, they are in the box seat to take out The Rugby Championship by winning tonight in Melbourne.
With consistency in selection now a real thing, the conventional thinking is for this side to attack directly through the pack, with Hoskins Sotutu and Barrett adding to Samisoni Taukei’aho’s running power, and in the process, blow the Wallabies – who look a bit shaky at 4-8 – out of the game.
I have a sneaking suspicion though, that the ABs will also fancy themselves in a running, high-pace game against a disrupted backline, and we might see them trying to play more of the helter-skelter rugby that has marked recent years. Either way should be good enough to win, but the long-term risk is that what might work against Australia is again carried into situations against strong NH sides who have learned how to deal with it.
As for the Wallabies, the day things turned sour in San Juan is hurting them big time. I can’t make any case at all for them winning in Auckland, and with such a disrupted selection, I can’t make a case for them winning tonight, either. And definitely not with the bonus point they’ll likely need.
The Rapport newspaper in South Africa, which seldom gets these things wrong, is reporting the Springbok coaches have completely flipped their script.
Instead of using the Buenos Aires Test to throw in five or six youngbloods, continuing the 2022 plot line of downgrading the titular competitions (the Wales series including the perfect record at home and now The Rugby Championship) in favour of doing World Cup selection work (deciding players 9, 15, 22, 23, and 24-33).
Jacques Nienaber is preparing to pick the same team from Sydney except for Elrigh Louw taking off-pace Duane Vermeulen’s No.20 jersey and Faf de Klerk returning to the bench.
The goal is now to win with a bonus point and catch the All Blacks. They feel they have learnt enough about Vermeulen now and have apparently made a decision about his chances for France next year.
I would say that Los Pumas have already performed a role beyond my expectations, but once this point is reached it is very easy to fall into the temptation of asking them for one last effort and win one of the two remaining games.
To have beaten the other three opponents in the tournament would be a great achievement that they had never
been able to achieve before.
Despite the change of stadium they have a great chance this weekend and I know they are preparing for it. It will most likely be a big physical battle from the forwards and Los Pumas will surely put players there who are up to the task. If they can avoid penalties, which is where the Springboks come from then with their line and maul, it will be one of the keys to the game.
I know that the box kick is a big part of the Boks’ offense and I think that Los Pumas have enough air security in Boffelli and Mallia, and if we add players blocking the runs of the attackers there is a great chance of
inhibiting that source of attack.
I believe the game of South Africa suits Los Pumas better than the game of the island teams and that most of the match will go through physical intensity where players like Tomás Lavanini, Pablo Matera, and Marcos Kremer will play a role essential in that battle.
Malcolm Marx versus Julian Montoya will be a separate match since they are great players with similar characteristics.
Very simple: the Wallabies must win tonight.
They may not win the tournament with the victory tonight, but they definitely will not win it with a loss.
And so that means they’ve got to get themselves into the mindset they’d have found themselves in during the review after the Sydney loss. The words being said across and to the group by the coached would have been – and needed to be – scathing, and they would have hurt.
The only way to learn from that hurt is to show the coaches – and everyone watching from outside the fence – that those scathing lessons have been heeded.
And it’s across the board, not just in certain areas. All the set pieces. All the restarts. All the attacking sequences and every patient moment that creates them. And every. Single. Breakdown.
Be better, significantly better, across the board, and the Wallabies will give themselves a chance.
It is really all in the All Blacks’ hands now, having a one-point lead heading into this round and with the final match at Eden Park.
Win both and they are likely. Win both with a BP and it’s very likely. Win both with two BPs and it’s in the bag.
With this match tonight in Melbourne with what is likely to see heavy Kiwi support and perhaps less parochial Wallaby support then you might see in Sydney or Brisbane, against a heavily revamped Wallaby 23 and a reasonably settled All Black 23, then yes, The Rugby Championship is well within their reach now.
OVER TO YOU: What’s got your goat about the game right now?
And can your team edge closer to claiming the TRC this weekend?
Rugby – The Roar