WHEN England head coach Eddie Jones said before his side’s Autumn Nations Cup pool match against Ireland just over a week ago that at present the team which kicks most wins Test matches, his words should have cut through a sport desperate to sell itself in order to recover from the Covid crisis like a particularly high-pitched car alarm.
Jones is, of course, a master of the pre-match wind up, but those who have been tuning into Amazon to watch the tournament so far will have recognised the fundamental truth in what he was saying. The lack of atmosphere in vast, empty stadiums during the last two months has certainly contributed to the rather stilted fare being served up on the park, but the big issue is that teams no longer regard it as being in their interests tactically to have possession of the ball.
We have gone from one unsatisfactory extreme to the other. From countless phases of mindless one-dimensional ‘hitting-up’, to aerial ping-pong – but the latter provides less scope for a player of individual brilliance (such as Stuart Hogg or Darcy Graham) to rise above the mediocrity and set the game alight.
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The tightening up in the interpretation of the laws around how the tackle area should be policed has turned the breakdown into something of a lottery from a coaching perspective, contributing to this increase in kicking as teams opt to play for position because it is too risky to hold onto the ball anywhere within kick-to-the-corner range.
The most potent attacking weapon in rugby has become the close-range line-out drive, which can’t possibly be regarded as a positive thing by anyone hoping to sell the game as a spectacle.
For Scotland, this change in emphasis has been even more dramatic because Gregor Townsend’s team had a reputation for playing free-flowing, high-risk rugby up until last year’s early World Cup exit, but have since put a huge focus on their defence and contact work.
They have made themselves harder to beat and, according to tight-head prop Zander Fagerson, the reality is that artistic merit comes a distant second to the cold, hard currency of wins-versus-losses in international rugby.
Scotland head to the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday to take on Ireland, looking to avenge a narrow 19-12 loss against the same opposition at the same venue on the opening weekend of the 2020 Six Nations back in February, and in the process claim third spot in the Nations Cup.
“I do understand some of the fans’ frustrations but trying to create mismatches isn’t as easy as it used to be,” said the 24-year-old. “I wouldn’t say it is boring, there are still a few nuggets and you just need to be patient.”
“I’m a front-row, I’m not kicking the ball, and I don’t like it either because I have to run to and from, but it is what it is and that’s how you win games, which is the main thing.
“I think we always had the attack, playing quick tempo, and I think our defence has now improved massively but we’re still not the finished article.”
While Scotland have been praised for making themselves hard to beat, their loss at home to France last time out was a sobering reminder of just how difficult it is to physically match the top teams in the world. They face a similar level of challenge this coming weekend, and Fagerson has vowed that he and his team-mates will be ready for whatever Ireland throw at them on Saturday.
“We didn’t capitalise as much as we should have when we played them in the Six Nations back in February,” said Fagerson. “We know it will be a battle but there are definitely a few cracks there so we will just take it as it comes.
“England definitely got on top of them physically in that game two weeks ago. Throughout the 80 minutes they were constantly in their faces and really took it to them.
“It wasn’t Ireland’s best game, but they turned it round against Georgia and had a pretty dominant scrum as well, so I’m not underestimating them in the slightest. We know they will come out firing on Saturday.
“They are always a very physical pack. They have some great players – I have played against Andrew Porter for many years, Cian Healy as well, they’ve got James Ryan in the second-row and CJ Stander the backrow – so I’m looking forward to a very physical encounter. It is going to be a tough slog but I definitely think we’ve got the pack to do it.”