After six weeks of action, the Rugby World Cup reaches its finale this weekend when New Zealand and Australia lock horns in a bid to become the first three-time winner of the Webb Ellis Trophy.
It is fitting that these two sides are finalists once again given their determination to execute the game’s basic skills to the highest possible level.
Their continual ability to develop clever rugby thinkers is also testament to their playing structures and approach.
I have had a bit of a moan during the tournament at the standard of refereeing and the staid approach of the Northern Hemisphere sides.
Inconsistent refereeing is often highlighted in the Northern Hemisphere as being part responsible for the negative mindset coaches and players have adopted – that low risk rugby removes that unknown factor (the referee)out of the equation.
But that is made to look nonsense when we see the approach that the likes of New Zealand, Australia, Argentina and even Japan have adopted during the tournament.
The game in Europe suffers from its results driven approach.
In England and France the pressure to retain status and the money that goes with it shapes the playing style.
Relegation must be avoided at all costs. As a result we see short term thinking in areas such as recruitment with the development of younger players deemed far too long term.
We have created an environment that has eliminated the risk taker.
The mindset that to lose a game as a result of trying something different will mark players down as unsuitable for higher honours is prevalent – the treatment of Danny Cipriani a clear case in point.
No, we want 15 automatons that will play to a clear plan and not deviate whatever might be happening in front of them.
As a result we have emphasized the physical aspects of the game rather than concentrating on the skills.
Backlines have almost become akin to defensive units found in American Football with their only role to stop the opposition.
Phrases such as “to win the aerial battle” or “go through the phases” dominate tactical appreciation in the North.
That the weather necessitates this possession/regain possession game is also a pretty lame excuse – after all it has been known to rain a bit in New Zealand.
So if the coaches are not going to challenge themselves and the players are happy to play these dull patterns then how do we get a more skilful game?
Well quite simply, through simplifying the laws and some tweaks that place a greater emphasis on playing with the ball. There are a number of areas where changes are needed but let’s take one area where changes would make a huge difference to the game – the scrum.
It is almost been forgotten that the scrum is actually a means to re-start the game “quickly, safely and fairly”. After all we don’t see many quick scrums these days.
The scrum should provide prime attacking ball given the concentration of forwards in one part of the field. Unfortunately most of the time we see forward packs seek to drive and double drive just to get a penalty.
The negative coaches tell us that the scrum pressure is such that it is dangerous for hookers to lift their foot to strike the ball.
However both New Zealand and Japan have returned to the quick heel to generate quick attacking ball during the World Cup.
The engagement process is working fine but the contest for the ball has disappeared.
To get back to basics scrum halves must be made to put the ball in straight to allow both hookers to strike for it.
Crucially, sides should then only be allowed to push once the ball has been clearly won.
From there if a scrum is not gaining forward momentum within five seconds of the ball being at the No.8’s feet then the referee should be asking the side in possession to use it, akin to what we see at the breakdown.
As a further carrot to encourage attacking play, I would suggest the defensive back line should be made to be 10 metres back from the scrum rather than the current five but allow the attacking backline to remain five metres from the scrum.
These offside lines should be policed by the assistant referees to allow the main official to ensure we get a stable contested scrum.
These changes would allow for greater attacking space and an increased ball in play time.
But most important of all the approach to the game in the Northern Hemisphere needs a radical rethink.
If we continue to do what we have always done then we will continue to get the results that we have always got.
Something we should remember as we get ready to celebrate the seventh Southern Hemisphere champion from eight Rugby World Cups.