Five rugby talking points from November
Up for debate is the shock introduction of bonus points to the Six Nations, mid-air collisions, supporting the Pacific Islands and positional switches
Six Nations finally gets bonus points
November saw the Northern Hemisphere’s premier test competition finally adopt the bonus point system. It is long overdue. Many will argue that the new system merely increases the benefits afforded to those teams who have three home games during the competition – an unavoidable consequence of a six team format. However, this isn’t the case. The new format remains as unequal as it was last season, but now teams will be rewarded for scoring tries. Despite the obvious benefits of the new format, in terms of more expansive rugby, there is also a wider benefit. The Six Nations has developed a reputation as being the traditionalist’s version of rugby, one that chokes on its vintage port and swan breast at the mere mention of Super Rugby.
A competition that prides itself on being played in the winter months despite the obvious benefits of moving the competition to late April. A competition that thinks that policeman used to be taller and that summers were longer in the good old days. The tweak to the bonus point system is hopefully the start of far wider reform which could include expansion to the teams involved –just as the Rugby Championship has. All of the Six Nations’ stakeholders, supporters and administrators need to make sure that the competition moves forward every season in some regard. Remember, billiards and pub skittles were once popular formats too….
The ‘Mid Air’ Lottery
This isn’t a new marketing gimmick aimed at booting a TV presenter out of a plane whilst he/she reads out this week’s winning numbers, more a comment on the confusing penalties handed out to players who have attempted to take a high ball. November once again saw a series of punishments that were uneven in their severity. The ‘mid-air’ challenge is the new ‘tip-tackle’, a situation where the outcome takes precedence over the intent – which in many cases are completely unrelated.
You could lightly tap a player and spin them onto their neck, or absolutely clatter a player who lands on his back and the prior will be judged more harshly. The outcome being the basis of the length of the ban is hugely flawed. At its most theoretical, you could hit an airborne player so hard on their lower legs that they spin 360 degrees and land on their feet with no consequences – just because the illegal action resulted in a safe outcome. The whole process requires a rethink.
Pacific Island Rugby should be a priority for all
Rugby has made huge strides over the past decade both on and off the field. The growth of sevens and women’s rugby being exceptional examples. However, the treatment of the Pacific Island Nations remains a stain on the sport’s conscience. Hopefully this is about to change. November saw the beginnings of a possible Fijian Super Rugby franchise. This project is long overdue and a step in the right direction and will hopefully be the precursor to a far more wide reaching solution to the issues that face the Pacific Island players. There are few, if any, professional rugby teams in the world that haven’t benefited from a Pacific Island player, many of whom have no other option than to leave the area in order to become a professional player.
A mere glance at the Top 14, English Premiership, Super Rugby and Pro 12 cannot fail to leave a residue of guilt given the inequality faced when those individuals play for their Pacific Island nation. The situation was brought into sharp focus when the disparity of wages paid to the England and Fijian players was reported in November –the Fijian Players earning £400 in comparison to the England players’ £22,000. It is rugby’s equivalent of ‘battery’ farming. Where we all turn a blind eye as long as we get our eggs. The sport’s finances could do with being a bit more free range.
Why are positional switches so rare in the Northern Hemisphere?
As November showed, the Northern Hemisphere seems to have problems with players switching positions. A situation that the Southern Hemisphere seemingly does not. The past month saw debates regarding Elliot Daly switching to the wing from centre and Leigh Halfpenny switching from fullback to wing. It’s as if Northern Hemisphere players, once having turned professional, have their positional number tattooed onto their skin – an indelible mark and skillset from which they cannot possibly be shifted. Yet with the All Blacks, the players quite happily switch around – particularly in the back three.
Ben Smith switches from fullback to wing on a weekly basis without any fuss. The Wallabies have played David Pocock in three positions in one season – six, seven and eight; yet to move Sam Warburton to the blindside for Wales is tantamount to heresy. It is perhaps a comment on the Northern Hemisphere’s attitude to narrow skillsets and a sense of entitlement that leads to such issues. New Zealand, for example, is awash with talent happy to play anywhere. A classic example being Hadleigh Parks at the Scarlets. A fringe Super Rugby player in New Zealand, yet probably the most consistent player involved at a Welsh region this season. The north, yet again, can learn from the south.
‘One up’ carries are no longer enough
The days where a single ball carrier could effectively penetrate the defensive line are long gone. What was once the very basis of forward play is now a blunt, largely pointless tool that merely saps the energy of the carrier with little gain in return. November proved that the most successful test nations are now selecting players, particularly locks and backrow forwards, that can pass effectively in the narrow channels.
Players such as Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick have revolutionised lock play and turned midfield carries into an attacking platform, not merely a position from which to set another ruck. The ability of forwards to link with the backline, in the centre of the pitch, can often lead to devastating line breaks, not measly two yard gains. New Zealand and England are leading the way in this regard. The rest are lagging someway behind.