Note: I am a fan of the Irish rugby team. Nothing to do with heritage, more that tap tackle on Dan Luger by Peter Stringer. After that my heart belonged to any team with Stringer on it.
I am also a rugby league fan who is still somewhat convinced that union is what happens to rugby when it’s been bad and needs to be punished. This year’s Six Nations is not helping that feeling.
The present discussion in the UK (for which read London) press of Warren-ball, it’s strengths and limitations, and the damage it causes to players seems to be willfully ignoring that it’s an adaptation of the Clive Woodward playing style.
Clive-ball, for those of you who luckily missed those years, is possession-based. Keep the ball, maintain pressure, wait for the opponents to give away a penalty, give the ball to Jonny. (Those people who go on about how many tries the Woodward England team scored missed that they were often because the opposition had someone in the sin-bin and/or were chasing the game.)
Now there are some limitations to this plan, which we’ll call ‘needs Jonny’. It’s also quite hard to come up with a plan against.
All the plans seem to involve some form of ‘fronting up’ or hitting the team playing Clive-ball hard so that your team get the ball. Now Ireland also added the choke tackle to that plan but that also has certain personnel requirements vis-a-vie the now retired Paul O’Connell and stop-getting-injured Sean O’Brien (also known as stop-getting-caught-punching-Pascal-Pape Sean O’Brien). But the “purest” form of fronting up to confound Clive-ball is Wales’s Warren-ball.
It’s an intrinsically destructive form of the game where, because the players are picked for size as much as skill, doing something once they’ve got the ball is the problem.
Warren-ball and its variants are also incredibly wearing. When Courtney Lawes (highlight reel here) complains that English players (or players in the English Premiership) play too many games and are, pretty much, always sore, it’s not coming from a dainty player doesn’t enjoy contact.
The other problem is that you end up in an arms race. If their fly half is 6 foot tall, then yours has to be that too and the next one will be 6 foot 1. (Compare the vital statistics of Neil Jenkins [1.78 m, 86 kg], Stephen Jones [1.85 m, 94 kg], Dan Biggar [1.88 m, 89 kg] in the Wales fly-half position.) This has two effects, 1) the slightly smaller than Superman get locked out of the professional game and 2) any contact has more force about it because goodness knows they’re still moving at speed. This is true in both open play and the scrum.
I swear that’s where most of the sudden increase in injuries has come from. Obviously injuries happen, and always have done, and you’ll never have a contact sport (or any sport) where no injuries occur but the number of players of middle career age (25-29) retiring with degenerative joint issues is ridiculous. Oddly, I don’t think there’s been as large an increase in concussions, I think we’re just more aware of them and how serious they are now.
The other problem with Warren-ball is that once your opponents know you’re playing it, it’s possible to get round it, although this too involves “fronting up” and can lead to the aforementioned injury issues. Last year, for instance, Ireland finished higher than Wales last year but I swear that was at least in part because they were more terrified of their captain than their opponents (now is a good time for that Paul O’Connell clip).
And while Warren-ball might win you the 6 Nations, it seems to be utterly useless at World Cup level, where the Southern Hemisphere players are big *and* skillful (sneaky evil is a skill and it lies at the heart of New Zealand’s game). A variety of reasons has been suggested as to why this is, but while New Zealand remain the pinnacle, I doubt population size is the reason. I do however agree with the general view that the way NZ junior rugby is divided into weight as well as age categories probably helps retain the late growers better, and means that the bigger players have to be skillful (and learn skills) because they’re playing against players as big as they are so they don’t have the size advantage that you can get between a 13 year old who has had their growth spurt and one who hasn’t.
Since that kind of thing, if the Northern Hemisphere unions ever take it on-board, is going to take a generation to work through, I fear I am going to have to rely on an Australian who reminds me of a malicious Yoda to produce fun rugby in the 6 Nations, and since he’s the England manager, this fills me with woe.