On Saturday night two games of rugby were played. The first was bungled boring affair only redeemed by two acts of counter-attacking brilliance. The set-pieces were mangled,there was little inspiration or intelligence on set-piece attack as much of game was actually two games between the French playing rugby and the All Blacks playing their highly effective league-rugby hybrid game. New Zealand over the Henry years moved All Black rugby to a new level, but in playing a type of 'total football' whereby players all have the same skill set something has been lost. The game the All Blacks play is now closer to league than it is to rugby as it was played. Part of this is that The defensive lines are such that it becomes a crash and bash game. It is also that we have discovered that negative rugby can win, especially with a host of crash and bash players. This is why sonny bill was revelation, he brought subtlety new to current All Black rugby. Likewise the old fashioned skills of Beaudon Barrett and Ben Smith have brought something new to the team. But they rarely get to express them except on counter-attack. Nonu may be brutally effective, but he has killed positive back play. Slow half backs don't help, especially when the first five becomes a shoveller through necessity as opposing back lines are up so fast. We have too many forwards loitering all over the field looking to do our equivalent of the league mid-field hit-up. It is apparent too that this style only really succeeds when you have loosies on the top of their game. We sorely miss McCaw and Kaino, as well as what Thorne brought in the rucks and mauls.
The only acts of intelligence and subtlety are those rare moments of counter-attack that seem to be the only way we can score tries. The fact that the crowd in New Plymouth booed the French drop goal should tell us all we need to know. To boo a central skill exposes the mentality created by All Black rugby and the crowds who turn out for these experiences in corporate nationalism.
The difference with the rugby played between the Lions and Australia couldn't have been more striking. This was rugby in all its drama, passion, flair and structured brutality. It was how rugby should be played, with a clear distinction between backs and forwards, the desire to use set-pieces as forms of attack and defence, the use of the rolling maul. It was a game, a contest, a challenge to our senses, and not what increasingly seems to be hybrid game of the current All Blacks. The All Blacks probably would have beaten both teams- but it would have been a rugby tragedy if they had done so.
Is it the coaching? perhaps. Is it the types of players who now reach All Black status? perhaps. Is it a reflection of the way that NZ rugby crowds can be divided into those that want rugby and those that want the 'winning entertainment experience?' most certainly. All Black rugby attracts a different type of crowd to that who attend Super Rugby and the ITM cup. It is not about the rugby played, it is about 'The ABs winning'- and that is the central issue.
Thankfully we can forget the current All Black rugby experience for a couple of months and wtach the Lions play rugby- and watch the rugby of the Super 15.
The All Blacks can return to playing rugby- and we may lose test in the process- but I would rather have the drama and passion of a proper ruby game- even if we lost than the boring hybrid we are currently inlficted with.
We need forwards to be forwards and backs to be backs. We need to return to the dark arts of the scrum and to reinstate the rolling maul. We need half-backs who not only can pass long and fast, but also take control of a game. We need a midfield that has subtlety. Conrad Smith has been a standout in the past but has now gone one season too long. He is very good- but never has been in the class of O'Driscoll. Nonu exemplifies the type of player and rugby we need to move away from. We need loosies who attend to core business. Yet the players are there in New Zealand rugby:
Full Back:Beaudon Barrett
Wings: Julian Savea, Israel Dagg
Centre: Ben Smith
2nd 5: Dan Carter
1st 5: Aaron Cruden
Halfback: TJ Perenara
No 8: Kieran Read
Openside: Richie McCaw
Blindside: Stephen Luatua
Locks: Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick
Props: Owen Franks, Ben Franks
Hooker: James Parsons