Style versus substance. Or, more to the point, why not have both?
The recently-completed British & Irish Lions series, won 2-1 by the Springboks, was a bore. There’s no other way to say it. Sir Graham Henry described the series as a tough watch; All Blacks coach Ian Foster said it put him to sleep.
That the most engrossing talking points came off the field, in the form of Rassie Erasmus’ extraordinary hour-long rant, paint a bleak picture of the tradition that is placed on a pedestal.
Sure, winning the collisions and dominating the air are part and parcel of Test rugby, but there’s got to be more to it than constant box kicking and a pure war of attrition.
If the Lions series is the pinnacle of the game this year, rugby has endemic problems. Whatever else the sport strives to embrace in the professional realm it is supposed to be in the entertainment business.
While the Olympic sevens arena is sure to have captured new fans, the Lions series struggled to engross many of those who have long loved the game.
The Lions scored two tries from rolling mauls across the three Tests. And while the Boks deservedly won the series, and overcame huge adversity to do so, their limited and basic game plan was no better to watch.
Highly effective, sure, but brutally ugly.
It’s not as if South Africans aren’t capable of playing expansive, captivating rugby. In 2013, under Heyneke Meyer, the Springboks scored four tires while chasing a bonus point victory in the 38-27 loss to the All Blacks at Ellis Park. This remains, in my mind, the greatest Test of all time.
Last weekend we instead witnessed 37-year-old Morne Steyn come off the bench to slot the series-winning penalty.
The Lions, too, have oodles of attacking talent – as is evident throughout their rich history. Their simple solution is finding a different head coach willing to unlock it.
All teams grapple with the style versus substance debate but probably none more so than the All Blacks. Where other nations are more than happy to tuck the ball under the wing, to play 10-man rugby and adopt a dour approach in search of results, that goes against everything in New Zealand’s DNA.
Where the Boks bring Steyn off the bench, the All Blacks instead turned to Beauden Barrett last Saturday night against the Wallabies at Eden Park. The contrast could not be more stark.
Look no further than Richie Mo’unga sparking a 95-metre breakout – a movement that sent the ball through nine sets of hands before Sevu Reece finished it. The try was rightly scrubbed out for a forward pass, but such breathless skill and freedom of expression is what inspires future generations. It’s sure not another box kick.
To be fair the opening Bledisloe was not an endorsement of Test rugby of the highest order. Far from it. The first 30 minutes was turgid, with near constant mistakes blighting the contest. At least there was attacking ambition, though; a desire to use the ball, to offload, to score tries.
Rugby must be more than one man, or woman, clattering into another. It must be more than defensively-driven, conservative, dull contests dominated by officiating and frequent, painful stoppages. No one wants styles to become totally homogenised but if there are to be similarities, please let them be in the form of attacking intent. Because when two solely defensive-minded teams collide, you get the Lions series. And no one outside those invested countries wants to witness that again.
Later this year the All Blacks and Springboks will face off in successive Tests – the first the 100th between the two deeply-connected rugby nations. At this stage, those matches are scheduled to take place in New Zealand, but Australia’s widespread COVID-19 outbreak could well force the entire Rugby Championship to be played across the ditch.
Favouring their inherent style is much easier for the All Blacks against the Wallabies. Both teams, traditionally at least, harness players who naturally attack first, kick second, which lends itself to an open game with time and space to move.
Three Tests against the Wallabies is a completely different prospect to facing the Springboks, or Pumas for that matter. The All Blacks admitted they were far too fast and loose in the opening 30 minutes of their 33-25 victory last weekend where they initially failed to get their forwards in the game by being direct and creating a fast platform.
This is a constant internal battle for players such as Mo’unga and Damian McKenzie, the All Blacks’ game-drivers last weekend who want to play at all times.
Attempting to strike the balance between attacking and being pragmatic by using the pack to first lay the foundations, or to kick to shape defences, is the major challenge this All Blacks team is yet to master.
The All Blacks’ set-piece remains a lethal strike platform, and their counter attacking ability is unrivalled. But as they progress towards a Boks team that will attempt to suffocate, to live off mistakes, and squeeze any ounce of attacking freedom, the All Blacks must learn to traverse the fine line between playing and patience.
After a Lions series in which the rugby world nodded off, the game needs the All Blacks to show attacking endeavour can be successful.
The next step in that quest comes in remedying their inconsistencies from last week and locking away the Bledisloe Cup for a 19th straight year in the rematch at Eden Park.