SO HERE we are at the launch of the 2012 Super Rugby season. Michael Foley, the new NSW Waratahs' head coach, dapper in a businessman's suit and club tie, is insisting that his side will be more attractive to watch this season than it was last year. "Last year we were really attempting to score a lot of tries," he explained, "but the problem for us was that we would find that Plan A would fail and our Plan B was to kick defensively." Our hearts lifted. The new head coach is going to ditch the "Win Ugly" game that disenchanted supporters last season. Then, unfortunately, came this defiant and disingenuous justification for the kicking game: "But what we need to understand is that there is a time … where kicking is actually a really good thing to get the ball back.
Kicking to get possession back is an oxymoronic tactic, in my view. This applies especially to the dreaded box kick from the halfback. What you are actually doing is giving possession away. Giving away possession without some clear and definitive profit is a cardinal sin in rugby. In the golden days of running rugby at Randwick a player was automatically dropped if he chip-kicked and did not regain possession. We should remember the Three Ps of the master rugby coach Charlie Saxton: position, possession, pace. Good teams hold on to the ball (possession), carry out their plays energetically and with speed (pace) and, as a last resort when the attack is going nowhere, kick for territory (position).
During the 2011 RWC tournament the in-word for coaches was to talk about "clarity" in their team's game plan. It seemed to me that the other four Super Rugby coaches at the launch had more clarity about the plans of their teams than Foley. Richard Graham talked about how the Western Force had almost had a very good 2011 season. The team had two draws and six losses by six points or under. To improve their third place on the Australian table, the franchise had to pull together and learn how to win tight contests. Absolutely correct. Damien Hill talked about the challenges of building on the Melbourne Rebels' first season. With James O'Connor and Kurtley Beale, the team has real fire power in the backs. The young front row, though, will be tested in the long campaign.
Jake White, the successful Springboks coach, was calm and informed about the chances of the ACT Brumbies. Yes, he conceded, there were only four Wallabies in his squad. But he preferred to take over a team on the up. The season, he explained, was split with the first round finishing before the June Tests and then the second round of local derbies and finals continuing on after the internationals. White made the interesting point that the Brumbies, with their handful of Wallabies, could benefit from not having players returning to the Super Rugby tournament injured. Queensland Reds coach Ewen McKenzie down-played the loss of Quade Cooper. He explained that coaches worked out the tactics and strategies of opponents quite quickly. So the Reds continually tweak their game to fit the circumstances. He pointed out that even last season the Reds played with different game plans against different teams. Cooper's back-up would bring a different style to his play. This style will pose different challenges to the opposition.
In the past the Waratahs have justified their "Win Ugly" style on the grounds that it is effective in terms of results and tries scored. Last season, for instance, the Waratahs scored the most tries in the pool rounds. They also kicked less than, say, the Reds. But they did not make it past the first week of the finals. Their tactics disenchanted their supporters so much the side was booed at the SFS. Meanwhile, the "Win Smart" style of the Reds thrilled their supporters, entranced rugby supporters throughout Australia (television ratings were up 41 per cent) and, importantly, delivered the franchise its first Super Rugby title. Marcel Duchamp once remarked that "art is created partly by its maker and partly by its audience". The Waratahs were a team in 2011 that totally disregarded their audience. To be successful this season the Waratahs must bring their supporters along with them on their journey by playing smart, attractive rugby.
A Fearless Prediction for the Australian section: 1- Reds. 2- Waratahs. 3- Brumbies. 4- Rebels. 5- Western Force.
Correction: The original version of this story said the Waratahs had not qualified for last year's Super Rugby finals. They lost to the Auckland Blues in a qualifying final.