Pilfering breakaways now so good are they bad for rugby?

Pilfering breakaways now so good are they bad for rugby?

Thieves in the night … David Pocock and Richie McCaw.The Olympic motto is citius, altius, fortius. These three Latin words mean swifter, higher, stronger. These words could easily be adapted to the way Super Rugby has progressed since its inception in 1996.

From those first days of competition I don’t think we realised what we had stumbled across. The product was faster than anything we had seen, it was more physical and supporters were coming in their droves to see a “new and improved” game of rugby. The premise of the new-age player was to find something that was your niche and work so hard at that skill that you would be known as the best in the world in that position.

Some of the magnificent players to date that have elevated the standard of play in the modern game have been the likes of Jonah Lomu, Francois Pienaar, John Eales, Tim Horan, Christian Cullen, Joel Stransky and Sean Fitzpatrick. And in the next breath you could rattle off even more players who have just as much an influence on the game. Their influence has certainly shaped the game to what it is today, but the game of rugby is ”live”. It is forever reinventing itself.

Perhaps the most influential position has moved from five-eighth to openside breakaway. In the professional era David Wilson, Josh Kronfeld and Corne Kruger were putting their heads in places you just shouldn’t go. They made stealing the ball an artform. Teams relied on that aspect of the game to stop the opposition’s momentum. At the time it was lauded.

From an Australian perspective, we saw the emergence of two of the best in the game in George Smith and Phil Waugh. Their ability to get down low and hold their feet in the ruck made it so difficult for teams to remove them, they most often drew a penalty. In the present game, we have two of the best exponents in pilfering the ball in David Pocock and Richie McCaw. They have been so dominant – and in the case of McCaw, for so long – but they have drawn criticism they are bordering on the illegal and, for some people depending on what side of the ditch you are on, blatant cheating. My admiration of these two players is incredibly high. How they have been able to transform the game to the point where game plans are strategised to try and nullify their involvement is quite unbelievable.

But I am going to to play devil’s advocate, though, in asking, is their dominance becoming, in part, a detriment to the game, and I say this with the utmost respect. Why? Because the players in question and just about all the No.7s running around in world rugby these days are able to nullify and stifle their opposition’s attack.

Let’s take the third Test against Wales for example. The game was dominated by the powers of the two openside breakaways in Sam Warburton and Pocock. Surprisingly, Pocock didn’t receive man-of-the-match honours for his performance, despite having such an influence.

The contest was a stop-start affair and the fans were getting agitated, yet what they were doing was perfectly executed and legal. Being a day game and a dead rubber, the crowd wanted to see the ball moved about and the continuity of the game to be what everyone remembered. We got stuck into the referee about being pedantic at the breakdown but is it a case of these guys being too good at what they do? That’s what everyone was talking about after the game. Are they dominating the game so much it could be having a negative impact on the entertainment value and free flowingness (I think that word applies here) of the game? There is no doubt they make the game difficult for the opposition but also for the referees. Are they taking away some of the entertainment factor that we go to see? For the purists, you will be turning in your graves with the thought of such an accusation. I have, if you remember, also questioned the value of the penalty and field goal, something that was dear to my heart.

So how to move forward? I know the laws will not change and the game won’t reduce the numbers to 13 and drop the breakaways, so perhaps the referees have to include a benefit-of-the-doubt call that sways to the advantage of the attacking team. The laws are such that you have to give the player with the ball time to play the ball on the ground, then the defenders can attack the ball. Perhaps the referee should try to include a ”pause” call before the defender has a go at the ball. It has worked well in other areas. Until a player, a position or a team revolutionises the game, the No.7 will continue to dominate.

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