That was a comment I saw in the Guardian a while back. Yeah, I guess that’s probably about right. Although I’ve known some gay ruggers. Who were really the most un-gay gay guys I ever knew. But nevermind.
I caught a nice premiership match while I was in Britain – Northhampton Saints pounded Bath pretty badly, with the Saints scoring a couple spectacular breakaway tries, and Bath grinding and pounding, but unable to get the ball across the line until quite late in the match.
We got there late and wound up sitting close to the pitch, and I was struck by how large pro players have gotten. Some background – I played for nearly 20 years in the states and abroad, and was a light-heavyweight among players at my position. I played up to a pretty high level, and had an invite to play with a Division I side in the UK as recently as 1998, albeit as a lower side player.
But lordy, I don’t think I could make it today, just 6 short years later. The game has changed so much… I’ve seen a few premiership games over the last couple years, but this was the first one I’ve seen between two of the top sides, sober, and in good weather where both sides had their best players out.
First off, the lads are huge. I would be small prop at the top club level today in the UK or down under. The locks seem to mostly be about 6’5″ – the days of the 6’2″ utility lock/flanker seem to be over. Everybody is clearly lifting – hard – and while there are some guts on the props, #8s and a few of the centers, the days of the fat rugger are long gone. The days of the average guy who becomes a star are probably gone, too – Jonathan Davies would be too small to play today, and Billy Beaumont would be marginal as well. Nippy little players and tough grinders just don’t have a place at the top level any more. Small guys will still make it, but they will be exceptionally athletic and talented. Grinders will still be around – but they will be 6’3″ and run the hundred in 10.6.
Second, the increased athleticism and fitness has allowed coaches to adopt League Rugby’s slide defense. For non-ruggers, the slide is a matchup zone. After a tackle, the players line up behind the ball, spreading across the field, every man marking an attacking side player. As soon as the ball comes out of the tackle (the ruck, really) to the attackers, the defenders sprint foreward three to five steps. This almost inevitably results in a big tackle before the ball makes it to the gain line. This in turn leads to two developments.
The first defense-driven development is the NFL-ization of tackling. Rugby tackling used to be hard, but the emphasis was on turning the tackled ballplayer to steal the ball. Now the emphasis is equally on getting a huge hit. In the olden days, you’d see two or three big hits per game, even in top level rugby. (Confession: that’s how I moved up in the game – I relished making big hits, frequently). Nowadays, you see 8 to 10 big hits per game at the premiership / territorial level, and most hits are much harder. As a result, rugby careers at the top level are much shorter. You won’t see another Jason Leonard again, with his 60? 80? 100? caps. A few genetic freaks may have long careers, but again, this is NFL-ization. Most of the boys will have a good 3 – 4 year run, and pack it in with shot knees and shoulders. This is a shame, because rugger is a game you used to be able to play as a lad, a man, and an old boy; a lifestyle sport. Now it’s more like gridiron, and most top players will be done at 23.
The second defense-driven change is the dearth of artful running, and the general hamstringing of the running attack. This is a bad thing, because the running attack is the most beautiful part of rugby. Last weekend, Northampton scored a 100 meter try, making perhaps 10 passes down the length of the pitch. There were feints, stutter steps, side steps, a blind pass, a pass off the ground by a viciously tackled player… even some of the Bath fans were applauding.
Yet that was the result of a bad Bath turnover at a ruck on the Northampton try line. During normal first phase play, neither team made more than a 3 – 4 yard gain, except by a couple of bullocking runs that forced blown tackles. Northampton responded to Bath’s stifling defense by poaching determinedly at rucks, and kicking long clearing kicks in-bounds, which resulted in disorderly, strung out “vertical” bath attacks. The lack of support attendant to the repeated Bath counterattacks facilitated further poaching. But the tactic of kicking the ball away and hoping to poach it back in the resulting disarray of the counterattack relies on exceptional flankers – like Northampton does with former Springbok hardman Corne Krige, and former All Black Andy Blowers.
But most teams don’t have flankers of that caliber and toughness, and must instead figure out a method of attack that doesn’t rely on first giving the ball away, then stealing it back. Bath is apparently trying one of these methods – slashing crash runs at angles, between the centers. Either a fullback, weak side wing, or flanker peels off from a ruck, maul or scrum, and sits between the centers, a ways back. As the ball spins out toward the wing – and the defense are streaming in that direction – the crasher sprints inward at an angle, cutting against the grain and looking for gaps.
If it works, the crasher breaks a tackle, and sprints toward the flag at a 45 degree angle. If it doesn’t work, the ball gets knocked on, there is a tackle for a loss, or your crasher gets knocked out with an immense hit. These bad things seemed to happen a lot to Bath, so I suppose they will be going back to the drawing board this week in practice.
Where does this leave rugby? I haven’t a clue. I do know that the game is more exciting to watch and more spectacular than when I first started playing, yet it seems to me we’ve lost some of the artistry that used to be so common for our scrum halves and standoffs. Like the NFL, when you crank up the speed and violence, you get a better spectacle, but it isn’t necessarilly better for the spectators than the older, slower college game.