Gregor Paul: How the All Blacks can save world rugby

OPINION:

The rugby world needs an attacking champion. One that can kick-start a revolution that loosens the defensive shackles which are currently threatening to choke the life out of test match rugby.

Tackling has become the game’s most valued currency. It was tracking that way in 2018 and certainly at last year’s World Cup, defence was the winner.

And now the value of aggressive defence has soared. It’s crazy popular. It’s not part of the game so much as the entire game and if Argentina thought they’d delivered the greatest defensive effort of 2020 in Sydney to beat the All Blacks, England topped it at Twickenham over the weekend when they made their first 90 tackles without a single miss.

They racked up 246 tackles and only missed nine. It was an incredible performance and yet coach Eddie Jones focused more on his disappointment that England hadn’t been able to keep a clean sheet – leading 18-0 until Ireland scored with six minutes left.

No one imagined that defences could become this good. No one imagined that teams would want to devote so much time to make them that good or that it would become an obsessive quest for tackling perfection.

When rush defences started to become more dominant a few years back, it did seem then that it would be a short-term love affair: that a handful of countries would try to perfect the art by the time they got to Japan for the World Cup and then styles and attitudes would evolve.

Former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen certainly though that would happen: his whole World Cup campaign was built on this idea that the All Blacks would expose such defensive teams as dangerously one-dimensional.

He wanted his All Blacks team to be well enough equipped to crack open any defence and ultimately force a market re-evaluation.

“I think there’s a bias towards the defence,” he said a week before the All Blacks left for the tournament. “I think that’s definitely happened. And then because of that, everyone thinks we are closer than we probably really are.

“But someone’s going to crack that defensive nut, because history tells us it will happen. And when it does, then it will open up the floodgates for the attacking game to come strong again. Then everyone will be saying there’s a bias towards attacking, and they’ll go away and work harder on what they’re going to do on defence.

“That’s been the nature of the game, toing and froing both ways for a long long time. So I’m looking forward to that nut being cracked.”

That nut has proven much harder to crack than he or anyone envisioned. Weaponised defence is proving to be supremely effective and as a result, is winning more followers and more coaching investment.

The cycle is showing no sign of ending. Attack is the lost art at the moment and the game is suffering without it. There were slim pickings over what should have been a memorable weekend of international rugby.

Relentless, brutal defence is all part of the game – something to be savoured. But it’s like anything else, it starts to lose its appeal if it’s all that is on offer.

So many big tests at the moment are reduced to teams driving their lineout ball and then box kicking as a means not so much to nullify an aggressive defensive line, but to simply avoid playing into it.

There’s a shelf-life to that sort of rugby: a finite time it will hold its appeal and engage the next generation of players.

Something needs to break the defensive cycle and persuade everyone to invest more in developing imaginative attack and right now, all eyes are on the All Blacks.

They are the best hope, maybe the only hope of the rugby romantics who can absolutely appreciate the value and art of outstanding defence, but are craving more in the way of attacking creativity.

The All Blacks need to find that nut cracker Hansen talked about last year – not just because it will help them win more tests, but also because it will be the catalyst to beginning a new cycle where attack outpaces defence.

This heavy emphasis on defence has been a great leveller. It has been the means by which some teams have been able to punch above their weight – hide their skill set inadequacies and pin everything on being able to perfect one highly coachable function.

New Zealand’s natural advantages are nullified in a defensive world like the one we currently have – which is another good reason why it will continue to persist unless or until the All Blacks can re-establish themselves as the attacking kings of the game.

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