Stuart Barnes: New Zealand and South Africa show that attack is the right rugby attitude to have
Stuart Barnes looks at what lessons Europe can learn from one of the greatest games of the century.
By Stuart Barnes
Last Updated: 09/10/13 11:01am
And that is not just the hype of someone whose feet had touched down in London but is still on Cloud Nine on the BA flight reviewing the afternoon's game, quite literally as it happened.
Sitting in front of me was Nigel Owens and his assistant, John Lacey. Owens has - quite rightly - received rave reviews for his masterly handling of the match in every capacity. Video out, Owens underwent the self assessment process that is one of the unseen parts of professional refereeing. We looked hard for errors but struggled for even the smallest mistake. It was a wonderful performance but the Welshman was quick to put his performance within the context of the game itself.
He lavished praise on the players for the sheer positivity of their efforts. "When everyone wants to play the game there doesn't seem as much wrong with the game's laws as people think." He sipped his coke, I sipped my burgundy and the three of us luxuriated in the attitudes of both teams.
This was the highest quality game of the year by an untold distance and only the third Test of the Lions series eclipsed the occasion for pressure, but both teams played with determination to create tries for themselves rather than stopping the other side from scoring.
Attitude the key
Perhaps South Africa overplayed the rugby in a bid to score four tries and win the title but a four-try tally against the All Blacks defence is testimony to how much they got right. Owen also added that refereeing the scrum is not as difficult as most think - as long as the respective teams scrum according to the laws. And here is the crux of the difference between attitude of the world's best two teams and much of the Northern Hemisphere's professional clubs, regions and provinces that will kick off the Heineken Cup this coming weekend.
Defence is mistakenly perceived as more important than attack, so training hours are set accordingly. Thereafter, the prophecy becomes self fulfilling. Compare not standards - that would be unfair on the rest of the world - but attitudes. The Springboks scored four tries, all of them gems, but New Zealand, with a well-honed attacking game, simply responded with five. There has been much talk of the defensive deficiencies but combine the pace of the match and the thin air of Johannesburg and the criticism comes up short.
Bold and brilliant rugby is not for day dreamers and losers. The best team on the planet plays with more flair and attacking vision than the rest. That is a fundamental reason for their longevity at the top of the world's rugby tree.
The scrum is an interesting detail within the pattern of the game. New Zealand and South Africa predominantly scrum in the hope of forcing tries rather than attempting to con the officials into penalties.
Two of the highest profile English clubs and one Welsh region are regulars in the conning stakes (which makes the clubs' demands for some form of control over refereeing a tasteless joke); three-point negativity is trumping the desire for the five or seven-point play.
Saturday's game should be shown to the three Celtic nations and the English, French and Italian clubs over and over. Attractive, ambitious rugby can also be winning rugby. Beyond the narrow confines of blinkered British and European perspectives, there is another game waiting to be played that would lift the appeal of the sport more than any off-field politics.
Dare to be bold
The Heineken Cup will not replicate the standards we saw in Ellis Park but it can give the European game an early season boost by daring that bold rugby can be winning rugby. It can try and scrum according to the revised laws instead of trying to get the better of the referee, it can stop playing nervous negative rugby (the fear of relegation is the great excuse clause exercised repeatedly by limited thinkers over the years) and strike out for winning games instead of not losing them. That might seem to amount to the same thing but there is a whole different philosophy at work.
The international game set the tone in terms of its style, now the clubs and regions have a chance to follow in the giant footsteps of New Zealand and South Africa. Owens is officiating at the Racing Metro match with Clermont in Paris on Sunday night, a game I happen to be commentating upon. Fingers crossed that this Sunday night game will round off a week of creativity and intelligence as opposed to negativity and blunt-browed non-thinking. It is not the laws that limit rugby but the attitude of the players. Owens' comment, made somewhere over Africa, should serve as a rallying cry for European rugby.
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Hi Stuart, I know the press in the UK made a big deal of the Lions' series win in Australia but seeing how the Wallabies were soundly beaten by both New Zealand and South Africa in the Rugby Championship surely this puts a perspective on the Lions win as well? I would love to hear your thoughts on this.
STUART REPLIES: M Miller, It is a point I have tried to make for some time. A Lions series win should be celebrated for its scarcity value and as a reward for the incredible Lions supporters but the Rugby Championship has put the series into perspective. When I suggested Andy Irvine was wrong to sign Warren Gatland for 2017 it was for the very reason you mentioned. We won the series but maybe we should have won it easier. Anyway, we should not get carried away.
Do you think that if Danny Cipriani continues to put in performances like Friday night he will force his way into the England 6 Nations squad? If he can be consistant with the steel that he showed against Bath are his running and ball skills still not the best that England have?
STUART REPLIES: Danny C has huge ability, or rather had. If he rediscovers his form for England against Ireland in the Brian Ashton regime he would be a hard man to keep out. He looks to be back on track but the road remains long before we can say for sure that the old Danny is back. When we can, I'll join in the chorus but let's allow Cipriani to prove his points over a sensible period of time.
Which young players from the home nations are you hoping to see make their mark in this year's Heineken Cup?
STUART REPLIES: Carolyn, I hope the Scarlets get enough ball for Jordan Williams to weave his way through some opposition. Ian Madigan and Ian Keightly are interesting young Irishmen, out to put pressure on Ulster's Paddy Jackson in the battle to be Jonny Sexton's back up. And then there is Gael Fickou of Toulouse - pure class.
Hi Stuart, It's Heineken Cup time again already. I think Montpellier are a dark horse despite having Leicester and Ulster in their pool. They were in last year's 1/4 finals and the only side to beat Toulon in the competition. They recently beat a full strength Toulouse and Clermont sides, lie joint top of the Top14, and their Southern Hemisphere signings haven't even arrived yet. Early thoughts?
STUART REPLIES: Derek, I have eleven contenders and Montpellier would be amongst them as a dark horse. The Heineken Cup often takes a bit of agony en route to the title. Not sure whether the suffering has been quite sufficient yet but what a fascinating pool. There are another two reasons why you can only tip Montpellier as a dark horse, Ulster and Leicester
Stuart, If you were to name a World XV right now, would any players other than All Blacks and Springboks get it?
STUART REPLIES: Stuart, Good question. Figallo of Argentina in the front row, Alun Wyn Jones with Eben Etzebeth in the second row. I think Will Genia remains a gem despite the weird decision of Ewen McKenzie to drop him; he'll edge it over the great but slightly ageing Fourie du Preez. Wesley Fofana would be there or thereabouts at inside centre (potentially the best but a little polishing required) and, hey what about Leigh Halfpenny over the two Israels?