People often refer to “doing the basics” in rugby union. Coaches do it all the time and the media, to save time and column inches, follow suit. Rarely does anyone bother to rank these unspecified basics in order of priority. What matters more, leaving mental strength aside, if you want to win consistently: tackling, kicking, scrummaging, running or passing?
Clearly, all players should have at least three of these core skills but which is the most fundamental to success? Your answer will pretty much define your entire view of rugby.
To anyone with an ounce of spatial awareness it is a no-brainer: a team who are good at catching, passing, varying the point of attack and generally making the ball do the work will ultimately outflank most opponents in both 15s and sevens. If you look after the football, life becomes so much easier. Of course everyone needs to be able to tackle, tight forwards need to scrummage, half-backs need a kicking game and wingers should be quick around the field. The more top-quality rugby you study, however, the more obvious it becomes: the skill that sets the best sides apart is the sureness of their passing and handling, specifically in pressurised match situations. It is amazing how relatively few modern international players are pass masters.
Best of all is a pass that makes your team-mate’s life easier, creates a try or simply buys the team an extra half yard of space. Simplicity often pays. A pass is only as good as the recipient, so it has to be tailored accordingly. There is no point aiming a spinning bullet a yard in front of your perspiring tighthead in front of your own posts and then complaining when he drops it. Or trying one of those nifty round-the-back flips to no one in particular.
So when people debate England’s World Cup selection, rest assured passing matters. What to England’s attacking shape in Paris . Immediately, from high up in the Stade de France, you could see the French defence hesitating, having to delay fractionally because Cipriani was artfully straightening England’s running lines and not allowing the French centres and full-back to drift out towards the touchline. It was the same with Henry Slade ; even a split second of extra time on the ball can make a massive difference.
So does passing precision. Nick Phipps’s wild passes to no one against New Zealand in Sydney demonstrated the flip side of the coin, as did Louis Picamoles’ clumsy forward pass in open field, which cost France a possible win at Twickenham. On the other hand, Nehe Milner-Skudder’s perfect offload out of the tackle to Aaron Smith, which subsequently yielded a penalty try, was among the highlights of the All Blacks’ . The next time someone insists successful modern international backplay is all about physicality, show them a video of Ben Smith’s unselfishness or Willie le Roux’s dexterity.
Which brings us back to England’s World Cup options. At the very least they will be guilty of depressing conservatism if neither Slade nor Cipriani are included in their 31-man squad for the tournament. What is the point of picking quick outside-backs such as Anthony Watson and Jonny May if possession is shovelled laterally along the line, with little attempt being made to draw and fix defenders? When people talk about “not taking our chances” what they usually mean is their buildup play wasn’t precise enough.
Think back to David Campese’s in Dublin in 1991 that propelled the Wallabies into a World Cup final, which they duly won? Or the lack of midfield fluency that has hamstrung England since Will Greenwood’s retirement? It is not enough, at the highest level, to pick so-called playmakers who think they are doing the team a valuable service by flinging long, hopeful looping passes to static receivers.
Talk to Jonathan Joseph, for example, and he will be the first to highlight the importance of George Ford and Kyle Eastmond at Bath, in terms of allowing him to ghost into space. It doesn’t half help to have a team-mate on the same wavelength, even if you are a centre good enough to drift fractionally wider and change pace even before the ball has reached you.
Such players still have to defend but an ability to do the unexpected is equally priceless.
It just happens to be an area in which rugby league, particularly in Australia, can still teach union plenty. The Wallabies – not least Matt Toomua, Quade Cooper and Matt Giteau – are brilliant, too. England, in contrast, seem to be basing their strategy for World Cup glory on all-court physicality, one-paced warriors and catching their opponents cold on the counter. If they decline to include even one intuitive distributor among their midfield quartet they will reap what they sow.
You could already make a fine team from those omitted from their country’s World Cup squads: Sinoti Sinoti, François Trinh-Duc, Christian Lealiifano, Nic White, James Horwill, James O’Connor, Steffon Armitage, Richard Hibbard, James Hook, Adam Jones, Mike Phillips, Christian Wade, Marland Yarde, Elliot Daly etc, etc. The next question is how many of the above names will respond to their disappointment by ripping it up for their clubs this season. Judging by some of Wade’s tries in the Singha Premiership sevens last week he may well be among them. If he can improve his defence even slightly there is a top-class winger in there somewhere.
Game of the week
Ireland v Wales. Both teams will soon have England in their sights; the Irish are due at Twickenham on Saturday week, while Wales will occupy the same World Cup pool as the host nation. It is almost a Six Nations in miniature, with the Welsh in need of sharp improvement following their disappointing effort . Following two wins from two warm-up games, however, Ireland will take some beating at home.