4 Dec

England Show The Way
by Paul Waite
4 Dec 2000

Followers of New Zealand rugby had already learned the unpleasant truth that the current All Black forwards are incapable of footing it with the likes of the Australian and French packs.

Even Italy showed they could shunt them backwards to score a brace of push-over tries. Only three seasons ago this would have been unthinkable.

But to those with eyes to see, this cancer has been growing from as far back as 1997; more of that later.

The lesson was rammed home 25-17 by an English team which very much respects the basics of tight forward play and gleefully demonstrated as much to a Springbok team which has, in recent times, adopted the fast and loose approach pioneered by New Zealand – to a similar detriment.

The old adage “the game is won up front” has never gone away; it has just been forgotten. Looking at the current All Blacks I’m constantly struck by the lack of cohesion and unity of purpose in the way the tight five operates.

Instead of a group of forwards working as a unit, we usually see five players separately going about their play. As energetic and fit as they are, five separate players are no match for a cohesive forward unit – another old adage comes to mind: “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”.

How did this come about? My own theory is that a certain irony has worked its charm on New Zealand rugby. For so long in the amateur era the All Blacks were held up to be the ideal professionals in approach and attitude, if not in remuneration.

Professionalism came surfing into New Zealand on the wave of World acclaim for the kind of rugby they played at the 1995 World Cup. With the advent of the Super 12 in 1996 and special refereeing interpretations to ensure continuity in play we saw a riot of running rugby where tight-forward play was regarded as the poor cousin to the expansive crowd-pleasing stuff.

Nothing wrong with the motives there, but I believe the effects were subtle and a seed was sown that has only now come to fruit. Players coming into the game in this period were encouraged to run with the ball, at the inevitable expense of tight-forward play. Young tight forwards were initiated into a World of aerobic fitness, pick and go, and running out with the backline, instead of the hard yakka and pain of rolling mauls and physical confrontation with their opponents as a pack.

Up at the more rarified levels of the All Blacks there was some insulation, but the effects were there to be seen nonetheless. In 1996 the nucleus up front was Olo Brown, Sean Fitzpatrick, and Craig Dowd locked by Ian Jones and Robin Brooke. These forwards spanned the transition to professionalism, and knew how to eat pain and grunt out the hard yards when required. This brought us the first ever win on South African Soil in a test series. All seemed well.

In 1997 we began to see the effects mentioned as the All Blacks put in some marvellous half-performances where they scored wonderfully gifted tries one minute and then let the opposition run past them the next. The team eschewed total control of the game up front, and developed a style where they put in the hard work for part of a match and relinquished the rest of it to the opposition.

In 1998 the wheels came off well and truly as we saw a number of players who were either already absent from, or just about to leave the hallowed halls of All Blackdom: Zinzan Brooke, Sean Fitzpatrick, Olo Brown, Ian Jones, Robin Brooke, Michael Jones, Frank Bunce, Walter Little.

A unprecedented run of five test losses was easily put down to simply having lost these remarkable players, but with hindsight it was also something more. The replacement forwards had no real appetite for tight work, and it took an embarassing loss in the 1999 World Cup in the semi-final against France to prove it.

In that game the All Blacks were out-gunned up front by a pack which knew what hardness meant.

Moving on to the present day New Zealand rugby has a task ahead: to regain the techniques and ethos of true tight forward play. Without it the All Blacks will continue their flaky test record, and will usually lose if they play the likes of England.

I have one other message for the apologists who have, in various articles, stated that our All Blacks “have to expect to lose more” in this professional era.

This is complete and utter rubbish.

I know it to be nonsense, but for those who doubt that fact, I refer you to the alternative code, where the Kangaroos remain supreme and have done for many years fuelled by the same indomitable pride and belief in their famous jersey as the All Blacks have in theirs.

The Kangaroos respect the fundamentals of their sport, instilling the basics into their up and coming players year by year; the pride in their jersey then makes the difference.

With the All Blacks, we have a team picked from a pool of players which, for reasons outlined above, are lacking in the basics of tight forward play. Rectify this and the pride in the jersey will do the rest.

This game of ours is still won up front. Just get that message out to the coaches and players at all levels in New Zealand, and then watch what happens!

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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