Just occasionally, we are treated to a festival of rugby so fascinating in its detail, stimulating in its variety and gripping in its drama that the spectator falls in love with the rough and tumble all over again. I found myself doing just that last Saturday and Sunday as I watched matches of different hues and shades… and, indeed, codes. I mention codes because, to my mind, the game of the weekend – in Manchester, at least – was the wonderful 13-man Grand Final between Leeds and Wigan.
I’ve always been alive to the virtues of this form of rugby – I’m a good northern lad, after all – and here was a contest with excitement, skill and controversy running right the way through it; the perfect finale for two superheroes of Super League. I speak of Kevin Sinfield and Jamie Peacock, both of whom have been unwavering in their humility in both victory and defeat. They are what I call proper people and it strikes me that there are plenty of participants in other sports who might benefit from a close study of their behaviour.
Not that rugby league had it all its own way. The Australia-Wales game at Twickenham was every bit as stirring, not least because of the defensive heroics on view. The Welsh have made a habit of manning the barricades down the years, but in this game they managed to squeeze most of the life from the Wallabies’ cutting-edge attacking game and give them their own taste of life on the painful end of a siege. In a remarkable period either side of the hour, the Australians found themselves one man short, then two. There was no obvious reason to think they would emerge in one piece.
There were two aspects to their successful escape. Firstly, the Wallabies did the necessary from their own perspective; through a combination of grit, desire, organisation and technique, they kept their line intact. Second, they were helped no end by the failure of the Welsh half-backs to bully their own forwards out of the “white-line fever” trap into which they had fallen hook, line and sinker. When you’re in a 15 v 13 situation, logic dictates that there must be some space out there, begging to be exploited. It’s a question of ICE in action: Identification, Communication, Execution. Sadly, for Wales, the thinking side of the game went into deep freeze.
This was not the case throughout the game, though. There were stages when the Welsh impressed me with their awareness. I have no idea if Israel Folau, the Wallaby full-back, was truly fit to start a game of such magnitude, but during the first 40 minutes he was unusually fragile under the high ball. All credit to Wales for spotting this and being bold enough to attack the Australians in what everyone perceived to be an area of strength.
It is often a change of thinking, a behavioural shift, that causes confusion in opposition ranks. Remember the Japanese putting a try past the Springboks with a driving line-out and then electing to scrummage in the closing seconds – a decision that allowed them to win the game and turn the World Cup on its head for a few glorious days? Ask yourselves if Heyneke Meyer, the South Africa coach, planned for such a left-field eventuality. I suspect the word “unlikely” will form part of your answer.
The third truly thunderous contest of the weekend unfolded at the Millennium Stadium, during which Ireland came out in sympathy with their fellow Celts from Wales by losing key personnel to injury. It made me wonder whether there might be something in the Celtic rugby mentality that responds positively to adversity; whether there might be some law that says if a player of the quality of Jonathan Sexton or Paul O’Connell breaks down, someone will automatically step up to the plate to carry on their good work.
On came Ian Madigan, looking like a refugee from Westlife, to assume the general’s duties in Sexton’s absence. I thought he performed with great enthusiasm and no little skill; that he was a constant threat to France with his livewire approach. He may not be as tactically astute as Sexton, but he presented the opposition with a completely different set of problems. The same might be said for Iain Henderson, the half-time replacement for O’Connell, who, together with the flanker Sean O’Brien, an effervescent figure who created all manner of mayhem and chaos through an almost crazy vibrancy of his own, helped turn a tough game Ireland’s way.
By comparison, the Japan-US game had little attached to it, but I can’t finish without reflecting further on the contribution made by Eddie Jones’ side. They made the wrong kind of history in a sense – being the first team to win three pool games and not make the quarter-final cut will hardly fill them with joy – but they can take satisfaction in the knowledge that they taught the world an important lesson by playing rugby as nature intended.
It would be insulting to dismiss their style as simplistic – I know for a fact that you don’t play so vibrantly without a great deal of thought – but it’s true to say that the Japanese did away with many of the complications imposed on the modern game by coaches armed with a battery of computer programmes spewing out torrents of data. I mentioned earlier how opponents’ strengths can be targeted and used against them. Japan did this, brilliantly.
They brought with them a game based on non-stop running; courage and intelligence in the tackle area; wit and imagination throughout the team; excellent leadership and innovations galore. I am convinced that if 15 Japanese players had been given a 10-minute shot at 13 Australians, they would have scored not one try, but two. They may be heading home, but they have given us an entire banquet’s-worth of food for thought.
Their approach reminded me of a comment made by the late Steve Jobs, the genius behind Apple. Suitably adapted for a rugby audience, it goes like this: “It doesn’t make sense to select smart players and then tell them how to play. We select smart players so they can tell us how they want to play.”
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