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FEATURE 'Offence drives business': Why Gallagher Premiership shows the way for rugby

'Offence drives business': Why Gallagher Premiership shows the way for rugby
5 months ago

There was a golden period in the final round of Gallagher Premiership matches before the Six Nations.

As the light faded and dusk gradually drew in its evening cloak, four clubs – Bristol, Bath, Saracens and Exeter – accumulated 163 points and 22 tries between them, in the space of three hours of rugby. It is the kind of tally which used to represent a fair return for an entire round of Premiership play in England.

Whatever pain it may be experiencing off the field relating to its governance and business model, the traumatic reduction to 10 clubs has had a catalysing effect on the pitch. English clubs won 19 or their 32 matches in four rounds of the Champions Cup and six Premiership teams have advanced to the knockout stages of that competition. It is no different on the domestic scene, where a mere seven points separates second in the table from eighth. If the competition is bristling it is also high-scoring, with half a dozen sides averaging more than 3.5 tries per game.

Bristol and Bath served up a Premiership cracker at Ashton Gate last month (Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

In the larger frame, the fact such a scoring spree can occur in a traditionally conservative league represents a much-needed positive for the future of the game. It comes hot on the heels of a World Cup when the ultimate winners, South Africa, showed oodles of mental fortitude, but scored only one try in their last two games; and none at all in the final, despite enjoying a one-man advantage over New Zealand for most of the match.

The Springboks’ back-to-back World Cup victories raised questions about the game’s future as a spectacle, and as a marketable product with appeal to a wider audience. Those range from queries about the legality of a 7-1 bench split where forwards get stronger rather than weaker as the game progresses; through to use of scrum/maul to win penalties and score risk-free tries; the ferocity of collisions between ever-more powerful bodies, with the greater risk of injury that entails; and dominance of a risk-averse kick-and-rush formula suffocating the entertainment factor.

At one end of the spectrum was Australian ex-Scotland coach Matt Williams, now a regular pundit on Virgin Media Sport.

“What are you incentivising? By giving a penalty where you can take three points or kick for touch and start a maul, you are incentivising scrummaging to get the penalty. If you take that incentive away, well then – what’s the incentive?

“South Africa and England are like great tax accountants, they find every loophole and exploit it brilliantly. I admire the intellect, but that is not good for the global game.

“It is not good for the other sides in the game like France, New Zealand, and Ireland, who are trying to play a more positive, ball-in-hand, entertaining game. We are in the business of entertainment.

“Is it a 15-man game or an 8-man game? Right now, it has become so biased towards scrummaging and mauling. The game is totally out of balance.”

Argentina Cheika <a href=
Rugby World Cup verdict” width=”1024″ height=”576″ /> Pumas head coach Michael Cheika expressed concern at the style of rugby played during the World Cup (Photo by Michael Steele/World Rugby via Getty Images)

The head coach of Argentina, Michael Cheika, told very much the same story.

“The game has got a few issues it has got to sort out. I love rugby more than anything, and sometimes I love it and sometimes I hate it because of what I see.

“I think the game is stopped far too much, it needs to flow more. There have been teams here who play great footy. The crowd want to see more of that.”

As always, the model for mature contact sports lies across the water in the Unites States. In the NFL, scoring has increased from an average of 39 points per game in 1970 to 51 in 2020. The curve of scoring has advanced even more steeply in basketball’s NBA. Here is the NBA executive vice-president of basketball strategy & analytics Evan Wasch, speaking on the Thinking Basketball podcast back in 2021:

“We do, not surprisingly, extensive fan surveys. We have even done dial testing, where fans are literally sitting watching games with a dial, turning it up or down based on whether they enjoy what they’re seeing. The overwhelming response is fans like the high scoring.”

The truth of contact sports in America can be summarised as ‘offence drives business’. The championship-winning Golden State Warriors are a case in point, as outlined in the following excerpt from a Sportico article.

“At their peak, from 2014-15 to 2016-17, Golden State’s offense was 6.97 points per 100 possessions better than league average, the best-ever among title-winning teams. From the season before that offensive explosion (2013-14) to the season after (2017-18), Forbes estimated the franchise’s value increased from $1.3 billion to $3.5 billion (169%), while the average franchise value only went up by 69%.”

In each of the 39 seasons between 1979-80 and 2017-18, the league-wide offensive rating [based on points scored per 100 possessions] fell inside of the narrow band between 102 and 109. Now it falls in the 116-point range.

Most rule changes in the two sports have favoured the attacking side. Offensive players are given more license, defensive players are more restricted in what they can do legally. That is how the NFL and NBA build their appeal through law-making. If it wants a bigger share of the sports broadcasting market, it is high time rugby followed suit.

The Premiership is something of a class leader in that respect. It may be dragging a heavy tail behind it with its business modelling off the field, but on it there is ample progress. Some coaches may distrust the stat, but the 2023-2024 Premiership is currently producing four more minutes of ball-in-play time than the World Cup. The percentage of ruck ball retained is higher, which means attacking sides build more of them per game – an average of 82 in the Premiership compared to 71 at the World Cup.

Led by a core of sympathetic referees in Waynes Barnes, Matt Carley and Luke Pearce, the league has done an excellent job of creating an attacking mindset. It is that mindset which resulted in the scoring explosion at Ashton Gate. Between them Bristol and Bath accrued 14 tries and shared 101 points in of all things, a pulsating West Country derby.

Bears head coach Pat Lam went all the way back to his roots in a deep dig for the counterattacking game. In his previous role at Connacht, he built a team which could run from anywhere, and this became the talisman of Bristol’s performance. The Bears ran all the first five kick-offs they received from Bath out of their own 22 by hand, making three clean breaks, drawing two yellow cards from their opponents, and scoring one try directly in the process.

That set the tone for the game – as Lam summarised in his TNT Sports interview midway through the second period: ‘No fear. Keep going.’ The opening try was scored as early as the ninth minute.

 

 


There is no true overlap when a long speculator is thrown out to left wing Gabriel Ibitoye in the first clip, but the Bears are content to use the width of the field to advance the ball to the 40m line, spread the line spacings in the Bath defence and create mismatches against the forwards on the next phase, with full-back Rich Lane breaking between Elliot Stooke and G.J. Van Velze to make the money-bust.

The attacking impetus generated from kick-off returns created a cascade effect of consequences.

 

The pass is recklessly flapped down by covering nine Louis Schreuder and that meant Bath’s second yellow card of the game, reducing the visitors to 13 men. Bristol developed more momentum by first building fake caterpillar rucks and then shifting the ball to width.

 

The Bath defence does not know whether it is coming or going, quite literally. The forwards are facing forwards but the backs are on the backpedal, expecting the kick.

The cascade effect did not end there. The impact of Bristol’s desire to run ball back from deep in their own half was profound: Bath switched to shorter restarts in the second period, creating more of a contest under the ball, ruling out the dispiriting and decelerating caterpillar ruckàbox-kick drag, and opening more immediate attacking opportunities for both sides.

If Bristol could run the ball back out of their own 22, why not Bath with Finn Russell at 10? Suddenly, supporters from both sides were pressing their buzzers and turning up their ‘happy’ dials in appreciation.

 

 

Those who live the sword may also die by it, but surely that is acceptable collateral risk for a game which badly needs a bigger share of the sports broadcasting and sponsorship market?

 

Contact sports in the United States have shown the way, now it is up to rugby to follow it.

That does not mean the death of defence or forward play – far from it. But it would mean fewer stoppages, more fluid links in play, fewer scrum penalties [there was only one in the Bristol-Bath game] and more desire to ‘play from anywhere’. The Premiership is one league rounding on its past and gesturing towards the future. As Pat Lam implies, the whole rugby world is waiting: ‘No fear, keep going’.

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Comments

67 Comments
d
d 161 days ago

Good discussion Nick. A common comment here in Oz is that non rugby fans don't get the rules. We have rugby league here which is very popular and much simpler to understand. I'd love to see some simplified rules but also focus on making rugby more accessible and not just a rich man's game which turns so many Aussies off watching (along with the scrum resets,).

N
Neil 162 days ago

An interesting article with a lot of well made points. But whilst we all want to see the BIP as much as possible if all that happens whilst it’s in play is just more kick tennis then I'm not sure it would help……the overriding need is for players to become more adventurous the example of Quins was well made with all the players alert to the possibility/probability that they could run from anywhere. Watching England when a player makes a break it seems to be a surprise to the other 14 and consequently support is often missing which IMO can only be because they have a rigid game plan drummed in.

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Rugby 162 days ago

Michael Cheika’s views ok, Pat Lam’s views maybe, sometimes - Matt Williams’s views - Hell NO. You lost me there. Gatland is also saying more bizarre things these days. Mute button comes out.

As Pat Lam implies, the whole rugby world is waiting: ‘No fear, keep going’.
That is not going to happen.
Not sure why people have obsessions on fast open style play all the time, everytime. We do have rugby 7s for that.

I feel robbed when it takes 20 mins or longer to have the first scrum. I love scrums. that’s why Damian Willemse called for a scrum, because the french wanted kick tennis and were avoiding scrums v boks. I can remember when some teams had better lineout winning percentages so their opposition did not kick the ball out once. Teams adapt.

Running from 22 is highly prone to penalty turn over in a kickable zone.

I want to see, scrums, lineouts, free kicks, mauls, back line moves, first phase tries, 23 phase tries, no tries, penalties drop goals. I want it all. I don’t care how fast or slow the game is. I like the diversity. A 100 minute+ game with extra time is sweet.

There is no silver bullet, there is not one formula. The game keeps evolving year by year, team by team coach by coach, ref by ref. You become good with one approach, like blitz defense, or box kicks and another team will copy, if all copy then you have to evolve again. Who knows flared trousers are back in?

You just have to beat the team in front of you, however tactically and strategically possible.

J
JD Kiwi 162 days ago

Good article Nick. The Premiership is certainly my Northern Hemisphere comp of choice these days - even Sarries play some nice rugby now and how can anyone except a Leicester fan not enjoy watching Northampton.

I've been disappointed in the Six Nations so far though, only Ireland is playing good rugby. I wonder whether the French just play too much rugby.

P
Pecos 164 days ago

Super Rugby averaged 8 tries/game in 2023 & so far this season the GP is averaging 6 tries/game. So I’m not sure about the GP showing “the way for rugby”. More like waking up. Heck, I even remember when SH refs were being criticised by the North for allowing matches to “flow”. Sounds all positive though.

I thought the RWC23 knockouts showcased Rugby at its finest. Two of the QFs were epic & the Final worthy of the arm wrestles of the preceding five RWC Finals. The Boks are being too harshly criticised in my opinion. Their 4 tries to 3 tries QF win & their win in the Final displayed what really wins tight tests. Character.

As for the NFL & NBA, to be fair, both these sports evolved in real time through a commercial lens to be marketed as entertainment. For the NFL, pro over 100 years, for the NBA, about 70. So regularly upgrading their product based on marketing & profit is systemically embedded. Rugby went pro in 1996 after being amateur for 100 years.

Now in its 28th year In the pro era, Rugby still seems to be uncertain as to what its product actually is. We cry out for greater flow, less stopages, & more “ball in play” time. And then reference the NFL which is actually the opposite. A 60min game that takes 3 hours to complete & has the “ball in play” for 11 minutes/game. Or the NBA where the clock is stopped to ensure the ball is in play for 100% with data analysis based instead on individual & team usage rates.

We need to be careful what we wish for. Rugby is the only full contact team sport in the world. Unlike League or NFL, every scrum, lineout, maul, ruck, tackle, is a multi-phase physical contest. By mitigating any of these areas, we risk making Rugby something that it is not. Let’s not forget that Rugby's unique selling point is its multi phase physicality on both sides of the ball. It’s ingrained.

For example, the Professor favours getting rid of the attacking rolling maul. Joe Moody spoke on behalf of all fatties & told him to “go away”. Nigel Owens says the goal line dropout hasn’t worked as pick & goes haven’t decreased & defenders are now merely focussed on getting under the ball. Hence, as it seems that pick and goes aren’t picking & going anywhere anytime soon, for Owens this law needs to be dropkicked itself.

We need to accept that Rugby is what it is & that a rolling maul try is as “attacking” as a full field counterattack try. The IREvNZL & FRAvRSA QFs at RWC23 are full of physicality & attacking intent. There’s no need to debate that we need an attacking mindset. We just all need to get on with it.

c
carlos 164 days ago

You meant to say the FORMER Argentine coach, Cheika. Felipe was already named HC.

D
Derek Murray 165 days ago

Hi Nick, the argument for a more attacking mindset is compelling and well made.

On the other side of that is how little I enjoyed the Bath Bristol match watching it live. It didn’t feel like a proper game. When defence is optional, your traditional fan struggles to take the outcome seriously.

If a team finds the courage to play with an aggressive mindset in a clutch situation, like Quins did when winning the GP a couple of years back against odds, fans will gasp at the audacity and go along for the ride.

If nobody tackles and games are routinely point-a-minute affairs, then it doesn’t feel like there’s anything meaningful being played for. Well, to me at least.

M
Mitch 165 days ago

Nick, it seems like thees’s real buy-in between referees, players and coaches in England about what they want the game to look like as a spectacle. This has worked well for the past few years. Yes, you still see the odd tryless match which ends 12-6 but those games are few and far between. How Luke Pearce didn't get a knock out match at the World Cup is a tad bizarre too.

G
Giannis 165 days ago

Hello, no contestation about your analysis just a few remarks on your second chapter. As a statistician I can’t say that 19 english won games over 32 possible is statiscally different than a head or tail flip. Nor is 6 qualified english teams over ten so good considering that you say yourself that the english teams are so close from each other and we know that so many europeans teams are qualified this year even when losing games. These statistics notes do not bring weight to the rest of the analysis.
From an audience point of view we can only regret that the attack spirit has not reached yet the english national team.

O
Otagoman II 165 days ago

Really interesting article NB, thanks. Bizarre looking at the clips as it reminds me of games under the roof in Dunedin for Super Rugby pre lockdown days. So much movement deep in your half finding space both sides of the ball with a surprised defence backtracking. Very much like the Highlanders with Sopoaga at 10 good and bad results. I find this a contrast to when I watched a couple of games involving Bristol just after xmas when it is dreadful dull penalty manufacturing rugby. What’s happened since then?

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