The Six Nations has been absolutely cracking this year. If you cast your mind back 12 months ago you might recall that it was pretty bloody good then too, and if you go way back to the Six nations before that (I have the memory of a goldfish so won’t be much help there) you might also recall that it was pretty entertaining.
So, in light of this and in the spirit of honesty, I’ll admit something distasteful…
The Six Nations is a better competition than the Rugby Championship.
As an Australian who grew up watching the Tri-Nations in the late ’90s and early ’00s, this is a very hard thing to admit, but I’ve arrived here for a number of reasons. South Africa’s inconsistency and the decline of the game in Australia have compounded things, but the big ticket item is that the home nations have become the innovators of the game.
It used to be the Southern Hemisphere that shaped the way the modern game is played, but after watching the last couple of games between England, Ireland, and Scotland, I think that has well and truly changed. Their defensive structures are now the gold standard and because they therefore spend the most time trying to unlock them, they have elevated their attack patterns.
Now the biggest concern for attack coaches at the moment is how to unlock good rush defences. Modern players are bigger, faster and fitter than ever so with the right personnel it is a pretty effective way to defend and force the opposition into making a mistake. So how do you get around it?
It’s nothing new to drop a short kick in behind the line when the opposition rushes up on you, but the frequency with which the home nations are doing it now is quite new. It’s not even about attempting to regather the ball anymore, it’s about forcing a mistake from the opposition or if they do maintain possession, it’s about using your own rush defence to force a mistake or turnover deep inside opposition territory. If you do regather the pill, hey, bonus!
You’ll notice it’s not just fly-halves or inside centres dropping it short anymore either, the outside backs are regularly doing it on the fringes once the wingers have been pulled forward and the fullback is left isolated. Another plus is it makes the defence hesitate, which gives your attack more time and space to get over the advantage line or ideally, score a try.
This type of play was frowned upon for so many years because if not done properly (see Irae Simone on the weekend) you are gifting the opposition good field position and counter attack opportunities, but the skill level of guys like Jacob Stockdale and Huw Jones means more often than not it is paying dividends.
So with this in the back of my mind, I sat down to watch the first round of Super Rugby and see if any of the teams would follow suit and try to unlock their opposition through short or tactical kicking.
I won’t get into too much detail here as it was summed it up perfectly from an Aussie perspective already here (however feel free to have a listen to this week’s Pillar To Post Podcast, as it should be reasonably positive for once). What I will say is that on Friday night the Chiefs and Highlanders demonstrated a lot of poor kicking between them, and the game and fans suffered accordingly.
The Rebels were able to pull away from the Brumbies in the second half by playing at the line and through good tactical kicking, which kept the Brumbies pinned in their own half. Quade must have a direct line with Owen Farrell, as his game was very reminiscent of the in-form English 10. Maybe they can talk defence next.
If any team is going to be an exception to the rule it is the Crusaders. They are that good at unlocking defences they rarely need to resort to tactical kicking, and can get away just keeping the ball in hand for the whole game. The game at Eden Park was my favourite of the weekend, and I think the Blues are going to trouble every other New Zealand franchise. Some better option-taking after initial good work may have seen them win that game.
The Waratahs recognised the need to get in behind a very fast Hurricanes defence but weren’t able to execute properly, and often had to take the three points on offer as they couldn’t get close enough to the Hurricanes line to mount a serious assault. Their first try came off the back of a good, contestable high ball and some quick hands which should have been a clue where to focus more energies. The Hurricanes themselves did not put in enough contestable kicks and when they attempted short attacking kicks they were rubbish and were easily dealt with or went dead. The game never really opened up as both teams struggled to come up with answers to the opposition defence.
Looking at the above I think you get the idea, and, unsurprisingly, so do most of the Southern Hemisphere teams. It’s clear that there’s a recognition of where the game is heading, and a need for players to upskill to execute tactical kicking effectively, particularly out wide. The teams that aren’t executing a good tactical kicking game all struggled on the weekend.
Our northern counterparts have stolen a march on us, however, and their level of proficiency in this department far outstrips our own. You combine this with the strength of the Six Nations, and I can’t help but wonder, are we looking at the first World Cup without a Southern Hemisphere team in the final?
You’d be a brave man to bet on the All Blacks not being there, but if there was ever a year, it’s this one.
Rugby World Cup city guide – Kumamoto:
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