Sexy rugby vs a good old scrap for the ball…

Ed Morrison, OBE, former international referee

If asked to choose just one passage of play from any Cov game this season that sticks in the mind above all others, which would you go for?

I’m not referring to one that led to a try necessarily, although that that could certainly be the end result. No, just a moment in a game where one or other team puts together a number of phases of play that is memorable, for whatever reason.

Bear with me here, the reason for my question will become clearer later in the post.

I have one in mind, one in which no try was scored but which proved crucial in Cov taking the points from the game.

It was earlier in the season against Old Elthamians. Cov were winning 16-20 and the game was entering the last few minutes. OEs had been in the ascendancy for much of the second half having had most of the possession. For the last 10 minutes or so they were camped in our half with much of the play in our 22. We just couldn’t get hold of the ball.

Latu Makaafi and Scott Tolmie defending deep in Cov territory in the final minutes of the OE game earleir in the season

The final passage of play, lasting several minutes, involved OE attacking the Cov line and going through phase after phase, well in excess of 20 plus and probably nearer 30. One mistake, on missed tackle, one moment of lost concentration and it was game over for Cov.

The ball went from one side of the pitch to the other as OE pushed and probed to find a weakness that just wasn’t there.

Cov were disciplined that day and the  solid wall of blue and white jerseys held firm. In the end it was Coventry’s defensive pressure that proved the key and Old Elthamians eventually knocked on.

Game over.

The pressure on Cov had been relentless and our defence stood out as much as any of the games in which we’ve been the dominant team. Yes, some of the individual tries in other games have been spectacular, but I don’t think any of them have resulted in the pride I felt for Cov as that final play unfolded down at College Meadow.

I mention this only because Ed Morrison, the former World Cup Final referee, has suggested that:

the balance of the game is being diminished by laws that enable teams to grind through multiple phases

(The Rugby Paper: Neale Harvey – New breakdown laws spoil game – top ref Ed)

and that:

you see so many games with regular periods of 30-40 phases

believing this is now becoming ‘quite boring‘, something he attributes to the changes in the laws affecting the breakdown. 

There was nothing in the least bit boring about those final moments of the OE game, despite the number of phases Old Elthamians enjoyed that afternoon and that’s coming from a supporter of the team defending their line. It must have been just as exciting, if not more so, for those supporters of  the newly promoted and far less-fancied Old Elthamians who were within centimetres of claiming what would have been an historic victory for them.

I have to hold my hand up here and admit that if Ed Morrison’s remarks are solely in reference to the Premiership, then I just don’t watch enough games to comment, although I’ve not read elsewhere that this is being seen as a significant problem.

However, in the context of National One, I’ve not really noticed there being a change particularly in this respect. And besides, if teams are going through 30-40 phases at a time, which seems an extraordinary number to be occurring multiple times in a game, it suggests that there must be a pretty decent effort from the team defending to have prevented a score over that number of phases – which in itself creates excitement.

Cov’s defence of their line against OE was as memorable to me as any passage of play this season, so simply because a team isn’t seeing a lot of the ball and is having to dig deep to defend doesn’t necessarily make for a ‘boring‘ game.

Quite the reverse at times.

Cov have limited a number of teams to under 20 points this season:

Moseley (h) 11

Old Albanian (a) 19

Fylde (a) 0

Loughborough (h) 0

Cambridge (a) 7

Caldy (h) 14

Old Elthamians (a) 16

Plymouth (h) 14

Rosslyn Park (a) 13

Ampthill (h) 14

Moseley (a) 17

Esher (h) 12

In many of those games, despite losing, the opposition had long periods of decent possession, not the 30-40 phases that Ed Morrison has referred to, but enough to put us under considerable pressure at times.

And for me, some of the stand out moments this season have been the defensive displays that Cov have produced in those very games, without which we might well have lost against the likes of Old Albanian, Caldy, Old Elthamians, Bishop’s Stortford, Plymouth and Ampthill. Okay, we’ve scored well  over 100 tries already this season and are closing in on last year’s record of 130, but one of the features of Coventry’s performances over the last 18 games has without question been their defence, which appears to go against some of what Morrison is saying in the article.

According to Morrison, it is becoming increasingly harder to compete for possession as a result of the recent rule changes which have resulted in Premiership games averaging an all-time high of 5.9 tries per game, something he accepts might be appreciated by many but which, to him, is currently spoiling the game.

Good sides are good across the board, which is why Coventry are so strong this season. The work of Craig Newby last season and Luke Narraway this has certainly added to Coventry’s defensive strengths and if, indeed, the changes in the breakdown laws have resulted in it being harder to defend, then Coventry have adapted better than most which is perhaps what other teams need to be doing, too.

Morrison goes on to say:

There’s a balance to be found and the defender’s got to have a chance of competing for the ball in my opinion, because a founding principle of Rugby Union is the ability to contest possession. 

His argument is that:

Teams don’t want to do that (contest) because they’re frightened that if they put too many people into the breakdown and don’t win the ball, the opposition will have the space to attack

It is a reasonable one. We saw the problems at Blackheath when Cov committed too many players to defending against the ball carrier, but that was simply because Cov’s first tackles were so frequently ineffective. Surely part of the answer to Morrison’s criticism of the laws surrounding the breakdown is to make sure that your first tackles count.

It might be more difficult to compete at the breakdown, but nevertheless the likes of Jack Preece, Brett Daynes, Latu Makaafi, Olly Povoas and so on, they all seem to be managing ok. And this season, even with these new laws which Morrison seems to feel are killing the game, these players are just as effective as ever.

Cov have been exceptional all season (other than the one obvious blip) at preventing teams from making effective use of their own ball…teams who play us often see a fair amount of possession, going through many phases, but our defensive line is up quickly and teams are forced to play the ball laterally across the pitch in the hope that they can expose a gap or kick away possession.

Cov have applied great  pressure on teams in the opposition half, often in their 22, despite them (the opposition) seeing so much ball.  Any errors resulting from this pressure gives Cov possession in an area of the pitch they can attack from at pace or, if forced to kick, Coventry’s runners led by James Stokes, have the ability to run the ball back into space, with support often at hand.

It’s not something that I find ‘boring’ at all – although maybe that’s just because Cov are so good at ensuring teams aren’t able to do a great a great deal with the ball they get. Whether it takes Cov 5 phases or 25 phases to break the opposition down, it’s always entertaining.

Setting to one side the issue regarding the increase in injuries resulting from recent law changes at the breakdown which have been discussed elsewhere in this blog (and to which Paul Smith, ex Coventry Telegraph and now Wasps media guru, believes you can also add the ‘no kicking through’ law), it strikes me that from a spectator’s perspective, the law changes have been a positive change.

The game flows more and it would appear, from what Ed Morrison has said, that attacking rugby is on the increase, something that is certainly true of Coventry, although I’ve always assumed that’s the result of Rowland Winter’s desire to always play on the front foot, rather than the result of any changes to the laws of the game.

If that is the case, then defensively, perhaps other clubs haven’t been so quick to react, but they will, I’m sure.

I do have plenty of sympathy, though, with his view that:

there’s nothing better than a good old scrap for the ball

although, again,  I do think we see a fair bit of scrapping for the ball in National One which is why Jack Preece, Latu Makaafi, Brett Daynes and Olly Povoas are so effective – they have the ability to turn opposition ball over and do it fairly frequently.

His other concern is that the game is becoming the servant of the media moguls, the tv companies that:

want to see the ball pinging about…

…young people think it’s sexy but we’ve got to be very careful

…careful that is, in Morrison’s view, to find that balance mentioned earlier.

Well the ball certainly pings around at the BPA and it’s not just the ‘young people’ who think it’s sexy, let me tell you.

At the age of 58, my rugby libido is as good as it’s ever been right now, thank you very much.

And it’s no coincidence that wherever Coventry play, attendances are up near the season high for the home side. Yes we bring a fair few of our own supporters to away games, but home fans come flocking in, too.

For other teams in our league it’s more a question of flocking heaven, than flocking hell…

So if Morrison is right and it is the change in the laws that is causing rugby to become so much more attacking, then that can only be to the good in the lower leagues, if not in the Premiership.

Surely it’s the responsibility of the RFU to attract youngsters into the game? To make it more sexy if that is what is needed? And if that is the case, then what better way of doing it than by producing games where a running, expansive game is far more likely?

I’m all in favour of sexy rugby…and to be fair the final few minutes of the Old Elthamians game earlier this season was about as orgasmic as it can get.

For me there is no diminishing of the game as mentioned by Ed Morrison under the current laws (injuries excepted) and nor has there been in National One a preponderance of games where we’ve seen sides regularly go through 30-40 phases of possession.

It seems to me the balance isn’t too far off from where it needs to be depending, of course, on how teams decide to approach a game.

Maybe the Premiership is different and it is becoming ‘boring’ to watch games where there’s an average of 6 tries a game – maybe.

But that’s not how it seems to me in National One right now.

But then again I am watching the best team in the league every week.

That does help, I guess.

Author: Tim

6 thoughts on “Sexy rugby vs a good old scrap for the ball…

  1. Boy! do I remember the Skinner tackle on the Frenchman. An endearing memory of aggression, desire and most importantly timing!!

  2. The former England scrum half, Steve Smith, on commentary duties during the 1991 World Cup said it didn’t matter as long as you got the win. ‘Three and a half – three would do it for me’ – or something like that was his comment.
    While the great teams and their performances will be remembered, most people remember the times when their club won something.
    Even with an exciting back line of Webb, Rossborough, Preece, Evans, Cowman, Duckham et al, you didn’t always get Champagne rugby in the late 60s, early 70s.
    England played the most exciting rugby of the 1988, 1989 and 1990 Five Nations, only to come unstuck at the final hurdle against teams that wanted to stop them playing. So we went back to basics, stick it up the jumper tactics in 1991 – until the World Cup Final. If we’d have played to our strengths then, I still believe we’d have had Carling lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy, not Farr Jones.
    Would I have cared it was stick it up your jumper stuff?
    No, because there is a gladiatorial skill, a desire for the fight, and it is part of rugby. Remembering back what is my highlight of that competition? Skinner and Teague knocking back the French number eight when we were dead and buried.
    And I love the Barbarian spirit, running rugby, clever rugby.
    But I like winning more.

  3. Tim for an even longer multi phase last gasp defensive stand, this time by Old Elthamians, go to the Cambridge twitter feed and see the periscope recording of the end of their match on Saturday.

Any thoughts:

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