Editorial: Consistency at breakdown key to good rugby

Photo / Getty Images
Photo / Getty Images

The last thing that international rugby needs is a repeat of the 2007 World Cup.

Once the pool matches were out of the way, that tournament became a kickfest. Notwithstanding the fact that most championships at the highest levels tend to bow to pragmatism, that was a particularly dire spectacle.

Few among the worldwide television audience watching the game for the first time would have gone away singing its praises. This year, rugby needs to show more of its best face by showcasing a free-flowing and expansive running game.

The last thing the All Blacks want is a repeat of the 2007 World Cup. A game based on kicking for territory and slotting penalty goals threatens to bring the world's top team back to the ranks of its rivals.

In large part, the All Blacks have been able to establish dominance by quickly recycling ball from breakdowns, freeing up time and space for their backs. Unfortunately, both their hegemony and the game's image risk being undermined by referees' shifting rule interpretation.

The problem has been identified by former All Black coach John Mitchell during the course of a Super 15 competition in which indifferent officiating has been a feature.

He said that holding on to possession at the breakdown had become more difficult for the attacking side because of the leeway being accorded the tackler and the player assisting the tackler.

The tackler was being allowed to hang on to the tackled player a few moments longer and the tackler assist was "getting away with murder". At the very least, the ball is being slowed down, providing the defending team with time to reorganise.

If teams believe the breakdown is becoming a mess and retaining possession a lottery, the temptation will be to resort to a safety-first kicking game. In the Super 15 round-robin games, which conclude this weekend, there has already been some evidence of that. The pressure of a World Cup will only reinforce the notion. So, too, will fears that Northern Hemisphere referees will bring a different interpretation of the breakdown law to New Zealand.

Already, the All Black coaches have voiced their concerns about games in Europe in which players have got away with piling into rucks from all directions and flopping over the ball.

Their worries are far from idle because six of the 10 World Cup referees will come from north of the equator.

It is, of course, logical for teams to place far more emphasis on defending at the breakdown. They have learned the consequences when opponents playing an All Black-style game recycle the ball quickly. They can be expected to come up with new tricks at the World Cup.

The All Blacks must be ready for this, and able to adapt. Coach Graham Henry has already indicated they will be prepared to play a game based more on kicking.

While that may be the most cast-iron of winning strategies, it would be a shame in terms of the spectacle. It would also be unnecessary if referees penalise unfair or illegal tactics at the breakdown and police that part of the game consistently.

The 2010 International Rugby Board directives that aimed to clean up the breakdown went a long way towards getting it right. It is now up to referees to uphold these in both word and spirit.

- NZ Herald

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