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FEATURE Should rugby take the road less travelled?

Should rugby take the road less travelled?
1 week ago

Robert Frost’s famous poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ finishes with the words: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/I took the one less travelled by, /And that has made all the difference.” With three major tournaments reaching their climax on the penultimate weekend of June, rugby has had ample opportunity to prod its beard, contemplate the knockout stages of competition, and take the best fork in the road.

What happens at season’s end should by rights crown a tournament and represent its essence. The branding tends to be more nakedly visible at the finish than the beginning. There was a huge divergence between the grand finals of Super Rugby and the United Rugby Championship on the one hand, and the Top 14 semi-finals on the other.

The five cards awarded in the encounter between Toulouse and La Rochelle were a short-hand for the extremes of physicality at the top end of French club rugby, with a couple of red cards issued to Rochelais starting props Reda Wardi and Uini Atonio eventually deciding the fate of the match.

The second qualifier was played out between Union Bordeaux-Bègles and Stade Français. A comparison between the pair of French semi-finals and the two grand finals in New Zealand and South Africa is very revealing. The first table shows total numbers, while the bottom shows an average of those figures.

The Super Rugby final between the Blues and the Chiefs was played out in the Eden Park rain, while the Bulls and Glasgow Warriors clashed at Loftus Versveld in Pretoria, where the thin air tends to encourage a big kicking game. Nonetheless, the total kicks launched in both matches added together still fell 13 short of the number in the semi-final between UBB and the ‘Pink Army’ alone.

Both the number of rucks per game, and the willingness to move beyond the four-phase threshold on attack in SRP and URC play suggest the rules of rugby are generating a completely different product on the field, depending on where in the world the game is being played.

The French version has proven most successful commercially, both in terms of establishing financial stability at home and attracting sponsorship and TV broadcasting deals, but without amping up the spectacle. There are 30 fully-professional clubs divided into two leagues in France, with promotion/relegation from one to the other, decisions made collectively about the future of the club game, and a policing agency [the Direction Nationale d’Aide et de Contrôle de Gestion] to strictly control and monitor budgets.

A salary cap of €10.7m per club compares favourably to the £6.4m due to be implemented in the English Premiership for the 2024-2025 season. Furthermore, the Top 14 remains the only major club/provincial competition in the world not to have sold off a sizeable pound of its flesh to private equity, in the form of CVC Capital Partners. That is another bright feather in its cap.

As the LNR’s current president René Bouscatel explained:

“Competition is vital. You need opposition teams who are at a similar level. I take no pleasure in the plight of English clubs [for example].

“Bath are supposed to have been building a [new] stadium for the past 25 years. I have been there [to the Recreation Ground] countless times and they show me the plans every time, but I haven’t seen it. I always have to take my umbrella there as it rains a lot.

“I am a friend of [Bath Rugby owner] Bruce Craig, but they are dreamers. With the English clubs, it’s a real shame. The English were the only ones to have the same competition as us but perhaps creating a better second tier might have been good.

“If we lose a club from the Top 14 for financial reasons, there’s one ready to take their place straightaway. We have a great spread of clubs emerging. I love it. There is rugby everywhere.”

The notion of ‘spectacle’ in France devolves to the sight of a succession of very large men crashing into one another at high velocity: on the carry, at the scrum and in the tackle area, with a petit general at nine to organise the play behind them. Very few teams indeed look towards ball-movement off 10 or 12 to break the hegemony of that pattern in France.

It is no coincidence the two premier strategists in the Top 14 are the scrum-halves who opposed each other in the weekend’s final – Antoine Dupont and Maxime Lucu. Those two launched 25 kicks between them in the semis.

The strength of the nine-man tapestry is reinforced by the ability to make up to 12 substitutions in a game, rather than the usual eight. One human boulder replaces another, after a breather. It is like shift-work, with no respite from the rolling tides of power.

The UBB-Stade Francais semi-final produced a dramatic finale with a uniquely French flavour. Picture the scene: the Pink Army are camped on the UBB 5m line and need a seven-pointer to tie the game with the clock in the red. Do you take the scrum or the lineout?

The second coming of 145 kilo South African prop Carlu Sadie off the bench prompted the Parisians to pick the lineout. Sadie had first replaced starter Lekso Kaulashvili in the 48th minute, but the interchange system in the Top 14 allowed him another ‘situational’ appearance in the 83rd. After a second penalty from a lineout drive, Stade were presented with the same choice, scrum or lineout?

With UBB second row Cyril Cazeaux sent off on a yellow card and Bordeaux reduced to seven forwards, Stade appeared to opt for the scrum, before changing their minds and taking another lineout.

 

The forwards appear to be gathering at the scrum mark – at least until pink pack leader Paul Gabrillagues is confronted by the sight of Sadie, refreshed and eager for the battle ahead. He points to the line instead, and the game is delayed once more as UBB bring back their Australian giant and premier lineout defender Adam Coleman, all 6’8” and 128 kilos of him, to plug another leak in the dyke.

Coleman replaced centre Nicolas Depoortère, to bring the Bordeaux forward complement back up to eight. Although the ex-Wallaby could not ultimately prevent Stade from scoring, his presence in the middle of the line persuaded Gabrillagues to take risk-free ball from the front.

The maul occurs near the right touch, Stade kicker Joris Segonds misses the conversion and that is game, set and match to UBB. It is situational substitution of which the NFL would have been proud, and it fundamentally changes the character of a rugby match.

The grand final of the URC contained all the drama of the Top 14 encounter, and the Bulls even had a copycat opportunity to win the match at the death from a driving lineout, but the personality of the game was very different. Both sides built over 100 rucks in an aerobically-exhausting encounter with over 40 minutes of ball-in-play time and only 10 replacements, compared to 23 in the UBB-Stade Francais match.

The visitors were able to put the game away with a flowing lineout attack which hit the sideline three times in five phases.

 

 

 

The culture of URC play is built to embrace more risk, and neither the ‘outnumbered’ one-man ruck on the second clip out to the right, nor the bounce-pass under pressure are enough to dissuade them from taking it.

That lesson is of course second nature to Super Rugby. It wrote the manual on embracing risk and weighting the culture of the competition in favour of attacking play. Even in dubious weather, the Blues gave a superb demonstration of the virtues of ball control in the final against the Chiefs, and in their semi-final against the Brumbies. The Blues controlled the ball for 22.5 minutes and through 136 rucks against their dangerous opponents from the North Island in a masterful performance.

They had started the same way against the Brumbies, going 14 phases from the opening exit kick to stamp their authority on the match at Eden Park. The men from Canberra pride themselves on their ability to disrupt opposition ruck ball, but the Blues always found a way to work the ball away from pressure.

 

 

In both clips there is intense pressure mounted on an exposed Auckland scrum-half [Finlay Christie], but in both cases it is neutralised by deft, quick transfers of the ball in contact, turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse.

Those same hands added the cherry on top of the cake.

 

Barnes Wallis pass or not, the risk accepted deserves the result.

The knockout stages of provincial/club competitions all around the world are reaching their apogee, and how they are played highlights a fork in the road for the future of the game. In France, the clash of some very big titans indeed provides the drama. They are even recycled by the generous interchange system for mano-a-mano encounters of Homeric proportions.

In the URC and Super Rugby Pacific, there is far less power-based claustrophobia and many more aerobic demands on players who need to stay on the field for longer periods of time. The game opens up, and the full width of the pitch presents itself. It is a choice for rugby and there may be no going back on it once made: “Oh, I kept the first for another day!/Yet knowing how way leads on to way,/I doubted if I should ever come back.”

Comments

163 Comments
M
Mitch 11 days ago

Why do they allow 12 subs in the French Top 14?

M
Mzilikazi 11 days ago

Really interesting article, Nick. Thanks. The road I would be on is walking with the URC/SRP teams. I had not realised the Top 14 has more interchanges. They have some huge men in that competition.

O
Otagoman II 11 days ago

Is there any indication about rates of concussion and injury being different in the French comp compared to others? Thanks for the read NB.

J
Jon 11 days ago

Love how you always bring to mind the most topical insights from rugby around the globe Nick. Some of my recent impressions;

My favourite game of rugby was the Bulls semi. That Final was great too but I thought a clear drop in standards/intensity.

J
JD Kiwi 11 days ago

Great compare and contrast Nick!

Of course France have reached this point thanks to rich owners prepared to lose tens of millions to stack their teams with so many of the world's best players. An expensive way to build a comp but when money's no object I suppose you can afford an extravagant hobby 😂

BTW I've finally published my NZ v England article in the other place, fortunately not much overlap with yours 😂

D
Derek Murray 11 days ago

Loved this. I wasn’t fully aware of the nuances of the T14 replacement rules. Makes a lot of sense.

Also the comments re the GP. There simply isn’t the same depth of interest in England/Wales/Scotland to support so many teams of quality.

Nor in Oz sadly

R
Ruaan 11 days ago

I really enjoy your analysis. I know you take some stick, and I don’t always agree with you, but this is the stuff I log in for. Keep it up.

S
Shaylen 11 days ago

If rugby chooses to embrace flair then it may err too much towards it and may become too much like league with the set piece becoming inconsequential in which case it becomes repetitive. If rugby chooses power then it becomes a slow drab affair with endless amounts of big men coming off the bench. Rugby needs to embrace both sides of the coin. It needs to have laws receptive to the power game but also laws that appreciate flair and running rugby. Where contrasting styles meet it generates interest because one side could beat the other with completely different plans as long as they execute their gameplan better and show great skill within their own plan. The maul and scrum should not be depowered at the same time laws that protect the team in possession should also be put in place with a clear emphasis to clean up and simplify the ruck and favour the attacking side while allowing a fair chance for the poacher to have an impact. Thus we set the stage between teams that want to build phases vs teams that want dominance in the set piece who slow the game down and play more without the ball off counterattack. The game needs to allow each type of team an opportunity to dominate the other. It needs to be a game for all shapes and sizes, for the agile and the less subtle. It needs to be a game of skill that also embraces the simplicity of the little things that allows teams of all qualities to stand a chance.

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