Rugby Union: fixing the North/South divide
Let's face it, six defeats out of seven Tests is hardly the autumn that the home nations were hoping for. With less than three years until the World Cup hits British soil, then, we asked Sky Sports pundit Dewi Morris what the north needs to do to catch up with the southern hemisphere's finest. As it turns out, he's been thinking about this one for a while...
BASICS, NOT BIG BOYS
“My theme through all this is you just have to look at the All Blacks. They’re consistently the best team in the world, so I make no apologies for using them as a blueprint. They play a basic game, but they play it with incredible intensity and incredible pace, and everyone understands it because they’re brought up to play this way from a young age.
“When they step up to international level, it’s a big leap, but they’re all on the same wavelength of how the game should be played – so they integrate easily. The key thing, though, is that the Kiwis work out how to get around defences instead of just battering through them. We’ve become obsessed with gym monkeys, as I call them, and we try to go through locked defences instead of unlocking them. As long as you look fantastic in a pair of Speedos and you have big muscles, you’re a great international. That’s absolute rubbish.
“We need to get back to basics and teach our players to play rugby. The problem is, the players are over-coached and not given authority. So, when things go wrong on the field, there is no Richie McCaw (picture 1) out there to make decisions and play off the cuff. It’s all drills and set pieces in training up here.
“The southern hemisphere sides have 15 men who can play the ball no matter where they pick it up, and we can’t do that. We need to get back to the days of players who can play the game. If you can’t take a pass at speed, hold it and offload it without breaking stride, you shouldn’t be an international player. I don’t care how big you are.”
PICK A SEVEN TO PLAY SEVEN
“A lot of northern hemisphere sides don’t pick out-and-out sevens, and it was evident yet again in the past couple of weekends. You saw what Michael Hooper did to England, and you don’t need me to tell you how good Richie McCaw (right) is. It’s incredible that we just ignore the problem, but it’s because we are in this cocoon of success in the Heineken Cup and the Six Nations, so we think we’re great.
“Look at Wales: they nearly got to the World Cup final with Sam Warburton playing out of his skin at seven. Now he’s lost a bit of form and the team are struggling. That’s because they’re losing the breakdown.
Or, even if they are winning it, the ball gets slowed up so successfully that they have nowhere to go.
“Steffon Armitage has to be in Stuart Lancaster’s side, there’s no doubt. He was voted the best player in the Top 14 last season, in a league with some world-class players. What more does he have to do to get a look in? “The other thing about sevens is they carry this mystique. Other than the captain, sevens tend to be able to talk to referees without getting in trouble, and they’re respected.
You need a seven that the opposition really fear and don’t want to run near. That’s David Pocock and Richie McCaw on any day of the week. Ireland, Scotland and England need to find the same, Wales just need to get their one playing at his best again.”
GET QUICK BALL
“Securing your own ball is one thing, but it’s got to come back quickly time and time again. If you’ve got quick ball, you’ve got a chance of doing anything, and that ball comes from good presentation. Look at Richie McCaw [again].
"Yes, he hits rucks at speed and from depth like the northern hemisphere players do, but the difference is he hits through the man, then fights to get back to his nine instead of flopping to the ground and squeezing the ball back like an egg being hatched. He almost points his hands back at the scrum half, and it allows players to ruck over the top quickly and lets the scrum half play heads-up rugby –instead of having to dig the ball out.
“Once the nine gets quick ball, it’s a flat fly half outside him or forwards around the corner that take the ball off him and power on again, then do the same thing. Once you’ve hit two or three quick phases and recycled at speed, no defence in the world can cope – I don’t care how many hours some boring nause has drilled them on the training pitch.
“Leinster, Harlequins, and – last season, at least – Edinburgh and Scarlets have all shown flashes of it, so the seeds are there. It just goes back to that thing of over-coaching. It’s this idea of holding the ball and going through phases that sucks the life out of our rugby over here. Get it out of the dark spaces and let’s play some rugby.”
GET A 10 ON THE GAINLINE
“Get a seven in there to steal the ball, get your forwards producing quick ball, and then it’s all about your 10 flat on the gainline. Just look at how Dan Carter fixes the defence and holds tacklers, creating space for his runners or just going himself. That’s the other thing – it’s all well and good having a 10 who stands flat, but he has to have the pace to back it up.
“Owen Farrell and Toby Flood can hold a defence, but they don’t have the pace to worry defences – so they can’t fix players. Look how Michael Hooper (picture 2) offered Toby Flood the gap on Saturday because he knew he could catch him up easily. Scotland are trying to grow Greig Laidlaw in this gainline kind of role, while Ireland have Jonny Sexton – and you can see the difference he makes. When Leinster or Ireland are flying, it generally comes through an on-form Sexton.
"Wales need to get Rhys Priestland playing that flat rugby to worry defences, while England have to look at Freddie Burns. He’s the only player – at least while George Ford is still inexperienced – playing rugby that would worry defences and have them on the back foot when he gets the ball. Get him at 10 and give him the freedom to bring the kind of rugby Gloucester play to the international stage.”
DON'T BE AFRAID OF FAILURE
“At the end of the day, we’re in the entertainment business, and people aren’t going to pay money to keep watching results-driven rugby. Too many coaches are worried about losing their well-paid jobs, so no risks are taken. Look at Australia last Saturday. I like Lancaster’s youthful approach, but England dominated large parts of the game and went nowhere.
"When the Aussies got it, there was an unpredictability that northern hemisphere sides don’t have. Kurtley Beale or Berrick Barnes chipped the ball for a chasing runner more in one game than I’ve seen from our backs in a season.
“Harlequins – sorry to go back to them again – are an example of how you can do it. It took them three or four years of building, but they created an atmosphere in which no one is afraid to play rugby. Take that to international level, and Chris Robshaw was looking for offloads last week, but nobody was on the same wavelength.
“I’m a big fan of what all the home nations quartet are doing in terms of youth and bringing players in with the World Cup in mind. Some of the younger faces picked now will have 30 or so caps by the time the World Cup comes round, so it’s the right way to do things. It’s just about getting them to play the right way. Get quick ball, get an attacking fly half and just let your entire team play some rugby. Let them create, let them make mistakes and let them grow.
“I don’t care what Clive Woodward says – it’s not just about winning the next game at all costs. We need to rethink our game over here and go back to basics. England will learn from their failure to take the points last week; Wales will learn from their over-reliance on a physical game against Samoa. These things can be tweaked and changed – it’s the attacking mentality and the freedom to play the right way where our guys need to start.”
Dewi Morris was talking to Mark Coughlan. Morris is Sky Sports’ rugby pundit for England’s autumn internationals. Catch England v South Africa live on Sky Sports 1 tomorrow from 1.30pm