I thought I'd start my blog with a vision of how I believe rugby should be played. I hope it will provoke debate, as it should, but also make those who watch and play the great game of rugby think about how the game is being played at every level
To sum up the way I would like The Mids to approach their rugby, I can do no better than to reproduce the first page of Jim Greenwood’s classic Total Rugby (5th edition). If anyone thinks they can recognise a well-known international team in the last three paragraphs, I’m not surprised.
“The rugby I’m concerned with as a coach is rugby at its most exciting - the fifteen-man handling game, in which every player is equipped to play an active role as attacker, defender, and supporting player, and in which the overall style of play gives him a chance to do so. This open, ebullient form of rugby is the most satisfying to players and potential players, spectators, officials, and coaches. It’s where the game’s most memorable expression has been found in the past, and where - because of its wide appeal - its future should lie.
We need a new name for it, for play-safe coaches have found it expedient to equate ‘fifteen-man rugby’ with reckless abandon, typified by a slavish commitment to spinning the ball wide. I believe in fifteen-man rugby, but the quality I prize most highly in a player is judgement, and one of the qualities I most deplore in a team is a strict adherence to any single aspect of play. Total rugby is a convenient title to describe rugby that subsumes all simpler forms of the game and uses them tactically as judgement dictates, but which seeks whenever possible to play the fifteen-man handling game.
What characterises this game is well-judged risk-taking. Much of the immediate pleasure in games, for player and spectator, comes from successful risk-taking, the spice of adventure, perhaps because it affords a more complete expression of the player, or because it offers a glimpse of values that go beyond the safe and conventional. Even in winning - that safest and most conventional measure of success - the best that the game can offer is the pleasure of winning with panache, of getting beyond banal, the humdrum, the workaday.
To show it consistently you must be committed to winning. What clearly distinguishes total rugby is the variety and enterprise of its attacking methods, based on the all round competence of its players.
To help define this position it’s useful to consider the polar alternative - play-safe rugby, which sets out to win by minimising the risk of defeat. This is based on two excellent tactical precepts - to restrict risk, and to play to your strength. Both of these figure in total rugby as elements in a mix; in play-safe they tend to define and limit the aspirations of the team. As part of the mix, they bring security and confidence; in isolation, lack of adventure and lack of variety.
The critical weakness of playing minimum-risk rugby is that it gives the players little chance to exercise the full range of their talents. The critical flaw in constantly playing to the team’s strength, is that it tends to perpetuate the team’s weaknesses. Concentration on these elements produces, at its best, a formidable but dull efficiency always based on the power of the pack. When the basic tactics - typically, tactical kicking or taking the ball on the short side - are countered, there’s often a lack of resource in alternative ways of playing the game. At its worst, possession becomes almost a liability, an embarrassment, so limited in variety is their attack. Yet paradoxically, the power of their pack creates the perfect base on which to build a really enterprising team performance. What stands in the way is a lack of vision and know-how.
The primary losers are the players. They become the victims of the play-safe syndrome: denied the preparation that would develop their talent and the opportunity to use it, they gradually lose the techniques, the judgement, and the attitude of mind that makes enterprising rugby possible. They then become an excuse for the system - for of course you can’t play enterprising rugby with players like that. This happens at all levels, but most blatantly at the top - some of the most prestigious teams throughout the world of rugby play this negative form of the game, teams with genuinely talented players whose talents are all too often allowed to atrophy. As a result everyone connected with the game suffers, and most of all the game itself.”