Eddie Jones has been better than most at utilising the changes rugby union has undergone in the last five years to his and his sides advantage. He understands the game, and is a student of its evolution. Having consistently made headlines with his memorable analyses throughout his time as England coach, Jones stated this week:
‘We have let fatigue go out of the game. Apart from increasing the reserves to eight, we have had to have head-injury assessment, which has slowed the game down; we have had increased TMO involvement and more protocols; and we have encouraged referees to be debaters.’
Does this topic feel familiar? Perhaps contradictory? It comes despite Jones insisting that his England substitutes be called ‘finishers,’ stressing the specialist role that dynamic players should have from the bench. Yet, whilst Jones pioneered this way of thinking about substitution, he does not think that the culture of mass replacement seen in the sport currently – with entire front rows departing simultaneously on fifty or sixty minutes – is good for rugby.
‘We have got to get fatigue back, because we need space. Otherwise we will end up like NFL. I support going down to six replacements and encouraging referees to make a decision and get on with the game. We have to find some way to tidy up the TMO. You only have to watch rugby league in Australia where it is clear and concise: one or two looks and a referee knows if a try can be awarded.’
‘A major area is decision-making, especially half-backs and full-back,’ Jones also said. ‘We are seeing too much of an emphasis placed on pattern and formation rugby, taking away from the development of 9s and 10s. You want them to be making decisions and if the balance between contest and continuity keeps on going in the right direction, which we are seeing in the early stages of Super Rugby in New Zealand, they will come to the fore.’
Increasingly it has felt that the only space for smaller, more expressive players is 9, 10 and 15. The greater the emphasis placed on these key positions, and the greater freedom they are afforded, the better the game will be.
Hopefully, as Jones frames it, continuity will trump contest. He is right, Super Rugby has demonstrated some positive signs. Players like Beauden Barrett and Damian McKenzie are the future: fun, fast, intelligent. They are also most impressive in broken play, reacting to the picture before them rather than merely carrying out a pre-programmed set of instructions.
Whilst obviously an important part of the game, set plays are boring. I am being blunt, but it is true. Nobody wants to see minutes lost to scrums and creativity restricted to choreographed back line moves. Joe Schmidt’s Ireland team, particularly towards the end of his stint as head coach, are a prime example of how an over-reliance on coaching and structured play can turn a side stale.
But how to engender more unstructured play? Jones is right, fatigue seems the obvious answer. Keep the ball in play, keep players on the pitch, and space will inevitably appear. It is in space that good rugby is played. It is in space that the best players thrive. Rugby must do more to stop itself slipping into mindless attrition. Space, and fatigue, are the answer.
Written by Joe Ronan.