Saturday 7 December 2019

Peter Bills: Brain drain hurting the modern game

Peter Bills

Statistics, statistics -- in a politician's hands, they invariably end up as damn lies.

But even so, some interesting stats emerged from last weekend's Six Nations rugby matches. If accurate, they contain a highly-significant message for the game worldwide.

In the Ireland v Wales game in Dublin, Wales completed 187 passes and achieved just one line break. We saw an endless procession of passing the ball backwards and forwards across the field in front of the Irish defence with hardly a single moment of straight running or penetration that broke the defence.

For me, this reinforced a theory I have held for some time. It also reminded me of a conversation I had recently with that great old Irishman of Lions fame, Willie John McBride. We were talking about the modern game and he said how much he admired certain players, like Brian O'Driscoll and Dan Carter.

But he also said this: "I played in a team with a back line of Gareth Edwards and Barry John, David Duckham and Gerald Davies as wings plus Mike Gibson and JPR Williams. So, please don't tell me the game is better today. Faster, more physical, much better organised, yes. But not possessing the skills of players like that."

Some might attribute that to the melancholic mutterings of an old man. Yet those stats tend to support what he said.

It was not only in Dublin that we saw this trend demonstrated. In the Scotland v England match in Edinburgh, England made 130 passes and achieved just one line break. Scotland made 179 and managed none. These figures are a dreadful indictment of some teams playing the modern game.

Even Italy, although wiped away 46-20 by France in Paris, made 93 passes and managed three line breaks. But 179 passes without a single break? Something, surely, is very wrong about a game like that.

Or is it that the players or coaches are to blame?

Of course, defences are far better organised nowadays, that is undeniable. But it might also be something to do with the fact that nowadays, the professional game has all but excluded the real thinking players, those who wish to study and become doctors, scientists, lawyers or captains of industry.

In 1962, the Lions were led on their tour to South Africa by a Scottish wing, Arthur Smith, who became a nuclear scientist. Brilliant minds abounded throughout the game and although it was then an amateur sport, the brain power was often in evidence simply by the way the game was played.

Nowadays, those past great breeding grounds of knowledge, Oxford and Cambridge Universities, which supplied endless numbers of players for the national rugby teams of the world, including South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, produce hardly any.

The professional game has different creatures, and I suspect, the vast majority are of infinitely less cerebral capacity.

The modern player may be physically immense, his body perfectly attuned to combat. But ask him to think about the game, find space and exploit it through cunning and guile, and he comes up short. Of course, not everyone playing the modern game can be condemned in such a way. There are still players showing considerable creativity, ingenuity and innovation on the field. Thank goodness for that.

To see a Welsh international team win so much possession as Warren Gatland's side managed in Dublin and do absolutely nothing with it, was depressing.

For sure, Ireland's defence was outstanding, but come on...187 passes and one line break? The ghosts of Wilfred Wooller and Bleddyn Williams must have been turning in their graves.

I mentioned coaches and I wonder, too, about their role. Are people like Martin Johnson, Dean Richards, Warren Gatland, Brendan Venter and Andy Robinson such formidable men that young rugby players brought into their sides would not dare do anything that had not been sanctioned in the pre-match preparations?

Might they not feel intimidated by such people and scared that an individual decision, especially if it went wrong, could imperil their place in the side? Might that not also help to explain 179 passes with not a solitary line break?

Irish Independent

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