Amid the forensic analysis that Australia’s rugby press cast their eyes over Dave Rennie’s final Wallabies team of the year, the first-year Test coach was asked his philosophy on the game’s most vexed question.
“Do you have an obligation to add an entertainment element to the Wallabies’ final game or is purely just winning?” he was asked by the ever-colourful and insightful Daily Telegraph writer, Julian Linden.
Rennie’s response was fascinating.
“I suppose it’s how you look at games, isn’t it, we dominated a big chunk of that first half, we created lots of scoring opportunities, but we didn’t score tries,” the two-time Super Rugby winning coach with the Chiefs said.
“What we’re trying to do is grow our understanding of how to win games, and you get into games, especially with northern hemisphere sides that won’t play enormous amounts of footy, and you’ve got to find ways of winning and sometimes that’s through smart kicking options that creates opportunities to kick.
“We definitely want to play and we’ve certainly tried to grow our game around our skillset, but I think we’ve got an obligation to put in a quality performance, not necessarily entertain by throwing the ball all over the place at risk of losing the game.”
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The national coach’s remarks come at a time when the very essence of the game’s values are being questioned and debated and, largely, criticised.
In Australia, they come when rugby is continually competing for space and coverage and at every turn their rugby league cousins seek to bash it down.
"I note 2 big rugby union tests played on the weekend, Australia v Argentina & France v Scotland. A total of 67 points were scored. 1 try, 20 penalty goals, 1 conversion. That is embarrassing," respected league commentator Andrew Voss tweeted following the Wallabies' 15-15 tryless draw in Newcastle late last month.
He wasn't alone in his appraisal of the game.
Up north, the Autumn Nations Cup has been slammed for its “tedious kick tennis” style and lack of imagination and flair.
What was supposed to be an entertaining tournament has descended into a grinding bore fest to everyone except the respective managements trying to hold onto their jobs.
“Rugby's obsession with the box kick is ruining the game as a spectacle and reducing it to a crawl,” former World Cup-winning England coach Sir Clive Woodward decried in a column for the Daily Mail.
“The time wasted with the elaborate set-up and 'caterpillar rucks' where players are shielded from the opposition is endless. And the end result is always hoofing the ball into the sky.
“Where has the art and skill of scrum-half play gone? The ability to get the ball away in a flash or to make a kick under enemy fire without first putting three or four guards in place?
“Where has the instinct to tap-and-go disappeared to? People don't pay good money to watch this nonsense and if we were allowed crowds at games they would be making the teams and players aware. Ultimately, the consumer is king and rugby needs to remember that.”
That theme has summed up the somber mood of the tournament, as eloquently written about by long-time journalists Stephen Jones in The Times and Robert Kitson in The Guardian over the past week.
With the Flying Fijians grounded because of the virus running rampant throughout their squad, only France, with their lively and exceptionally skillful halfback Antoine Dupont, are living up to the game’s bill of the game they play in heaven.
Current England coach Eddie Jones – a man known for being one of the most astute rugby minds in the game – played down the criticism and said the complexity and varied way of winning should be celebrated.
“We go through cycles of attack and defence and that's the beauty of our game — it doesn't sit still,” he told reporters ahead of side’s final against a French second XV.
“So, I think all that sort of talk is massively alarmist and quite silly. The game evolves and changes. Just looking at rugby at the moment, it's certainly a tough, physical game for the purists. It reminds me of the 2007 World Cup where defences were pretty dominant and kicking was one of the major ways to get ahead in the game. We go through these periods.
“The next cycle is always an attacking one so let's enjoy the defensive cycle we have at the moment and look forward to the attacking cycle when it comes.”
Jones’ former attack coach Glen Ella, who worked with the highly respected coach with both the Wallabies and England, however hammered the tactics being used.
“I’ve watched the games too, and I’m good mates with Eddie, but I’ve said to my wife that they’re just kicking the leather off the ball – this is three weeks ago,” Ella told RUGBY.com.au.
“It’s just ridiculous.
“Obviously they’re playing field position but that’s the challenge for a backline and good players, if you’re up against a good defensive structure, that’s the whole thing about it, you’ve got to work out how to beat it, what plays you’re going to put in place, what we’re doing from phase.
“I just think they’re coping it and saying it’s too tough, we’ll just put the ball in the air and hopefully we’ll go down and knock them off and that’s it.”
Yet, it’s not just up north that defence is the new method of attack.
The Wallabies and Pumas played out a tryless Test in Newcastle only a fortnight ago.
Rennie was right, the Wallabies had their chances but didn’t have the skill to execute at least two clear cut scoring opportunities.
While there is endeavor to be found in the Wallabies’ game, Argentina has scored just one try from three Tests and in the past two haven’t attempted to use the ball let alone score.
It’s why Rennie was so frustrated following the Wallabies’ 15-15 draw, which cruelled their chances of claiming some precious silverware this weekend.
But the counter-attacking specialist doesn’t subscribe to the theory that because defences have seldom been stronger that that should mean tryscoring opportunities should dry up.
“Defences are good and there’s a lot of emphasis put on it, as we’ve seen in this competition too, when teams have defended well it creates opportunities to attack, so we’ve got a real mindset around defence and that’s probably pretty common in this part of the world,” the Wallabies coach, who is known for his detail, said.
“But there’s no reason why (just because) everyone’s got good defensive sides you can’t play good footy. It’s the quality of the carry, it’s the speed of the carry to generate quicker ball (that becomes all the more important).
“If they’re able to get two in the tackle and give you slow ball it’s hard to find holes within that wall.
“We created enough opportunities to win well last time and didn’t, so we’ve got to be better and we’ve looked how we’re coaching things and we’ve looked at our decision making and we want to see that reflected on Saturday.”
The good news for Australian rugby fans is that Rennie’s decision to select James O’Connor at fly-half reflects a mood that the Wallabies want to use the ball and play square and on top of their opponents.
The Wallabies recognise that a "kick and clap" playing philosophy might win you some games, but it's unlikely to win a World Cup, nor the hearts and minds of Australian rugby fans.
“We want to be the best team in the world. It’s a bold statement, a really bold statement, but you have to aim high, set the standards high, set the bar high," said the Wallabies' highly respected attack coach Scott Wisemantel, who was Jones' assistant with England during their impressive 2019 campaign that saw them reach the World Cup final.
“We could go back and play kick and clap, sit in a corner, pump corners, all the rest of it and, look, you could make progress, maybe go up the world rankings a little bit, but it’s not going to win you a World Cup.”