Watching Ireland’s stunning win over New Zealand last weekend, one thought struck me. Might this be the start of a seismic change in the way Northern Hemisphere rugby is played?
I do not mean that we as a collective are about to start beating Southern Hemisphere sides left, right, and centre for the next few years, indeed I suspect that this group of All Blacks are more likely to become even more formidable for having been beaten than they are to begin to collapse.
What I do mean though is that Ireland took the game to New Zealand, playing them at the own game with pace and handling between backs and forwards. They worked out that when playing the All Blacks you can be as rock solid as you like in defence, they are still going to unpick it eventually. Better to accept that and to get on with the business of outscoring them, then. That is not to say they ignored their defence, far from it, simply that they chose to build their game plan on actually beating the opposition, rather than stopping them.
If other teams begin to follow that lead, we may just start to see a shift away from the current trend of bigger and stronger being better. Scoring tries and playing with tempo requires both a high skill level and a high fitness level, high fitness comes easier if you are not carrying around extra weight in muscle (or fat, but let’s assume for the minute that players are in shape).
If we in the Northern Hemisphere can move towards that it will change the game for everyone. If biggest is no longer best, the game will improve in so many different ways. For a start, smaller players will get a look in, the ‘game for all shapes and sizes’ theory may finally start to ring true again rather than the current game for all shapes and sizes provided you are over 6 foot and weigh at the very least 14 stone. More to the point though skill will be the key asset that a player brings to the table, not power, making the quality of the rugby higher. Why does everyone love watching Dan Coles play at hooker? Because he is a brilliant player. Much as I admire a Dylan Hartley type player, and he is a top player, a man hitting his jumper and recording excellent ruck involvement numbers is not that exciting to watch as a neutral.
Players getting smaller and more skills based would be great news for young players too. There is a lot of pressure on young players to get their size up, fast. At its worst that can lead to a temptation for doping, but more pertinently it can put pressure on players to get into the gym before they know what they are doing.
That emphasis on size also means that some of the smaller but talented players simply never get a look in when the jump from school to academy is made. Perhaps most important of all though is nothing to do with the ‘pro’ end of the game, but is what that influence does at the other end of the game. For some players schools rugby is as good as it will ever get, but they are getting put off because they are being beaten up by lumps every weekend. A young player can handle getting beaten for skill and pace, but being physically trounced week after week, few will enjoy that. The game downsizing might just mean that more players enjoy the game for longer. If you have loved your final years of school rugby you are far more likely to carry on, even casually, afterwards, than if you think everyone was massive and all that happened was you got beaten up every game.
If all that sounds like a downer on big players, it’s not. Big players and powerful players are and always have been a huge part of the game of rugby. It is simply that a move away from power and size across the board would be beneficial for the game, both for fans, and from a player retention point of view.
Then again, I have spent the past fortnight gushing about South African schools rugby and the culture, quality, and intensity of their schools rugby both in terms of the play, the coaching, and the support. If ever there was a country where power and size were the most valuable commodity it is South Africa.
Whatever your view, it was certainly an historic day in Chicago, and Ireland certainly came up with a plan for beating New Zealand that worked to perfection, play hard, play fast, and trust your skills. Get tries on the board, and keeping trusting your teammates to execute.
It was a thrill to watch two sides play each other in that style at that level, and that, perhaps, is the point.