I’m not against a good defence. Back when we were teenagers, my mate Billy and I had a bit of a fascination with defensive football. He even got a Norway shirt for his birthday one year, while I still maintain that Roy Keane was the best footballer in the world back around the turn of the century.
I remembered this last night, somewhere between the office in the City and the Deptford Travelodge.
No good rugby team achieved anything while letting in three tries every game, and if gets regular results then I’m all for it. It seems to be accepted in professional rugby, at least among coaches and the media, that a team that goes out to attack will be relegated (or finish in the top half, presumably), and so those of us who support teams at the wrong end of the Premiership are doomed to witness a turgid, forward-dominated style of play.
I’d add ‘wasteful’ to the adjectives in that sentence. “We could build a platform from here, but because we’re only forty metres from our own goal we’d better kick it to their full-back and let him run back at us. Even if that full-back is Mike Brown or Ben Foden.”
Smithy reckons that Dean Richards has publicly stated that the Falcons will kick everything in their own half. I didn’t see that quote but no reason to doubt Smithy, so it’s quite disappointing that we have this philosophy. Not only does it mean that we fans have to watch an unattractive style of play normally, I just don’t think it works.
A negative style of play didn’t work against Harlequins, and for all of the plaudits our team got at Northampton, a 0-18 defeat suggests it didn’t work there either. My eyes told me it didn’t work.
The league table suggests we are doing OK, but I think we (and Gloucester and London Irish) have to remember that Worcester are having an extraordinarily poor season and but for that things would be a tighter.
I remember a few years ago reading an article by a fan of (I think) Worcester, which claimed that relegation didn’t cause negative rugby – rather, s/he argued, negative rugby caused relegation. Their back-up for this view was a table of tries scored per team in the Premiership that season. Of course the top teams will always score more tries than those at the bottom, but the gap was so big that it suggested there was something more at work. A difference in philosophy.
I’ve said it before that if relegation causes teams to play negatively because of the need to win, and playing negatively is the best way to win, then logically the possibility of missing out on a Heineken Cup place or the league title would cause negative play too. They don’t, not as a rule anyway.
Lets also look at possibly the two most exciting periods to be a Falcons fan in the past five years. First, back in the early months of 2009, we went on a run of seven wins from eight Premiership games.
The key to that? In my mind, it was a combination of Tom May moving to fly-half in the first game of the run, at home to Gloucester, and a switch to a more attacking style of play. We had been in the bottom places in the league all season playing a horrible style, and then when we began to attack with purpose, we won a few games and climbed away from trouble. In the final games of the season, we went negative again, and lost four games in a row.
The second period was when Gary Gold was manager in the second half of 2011/12. Again, he employed a more expansive game plan than Alan Tait had with pretty much the same squad, and the result was we won four games in the last eight games, compared to two in the first fourteen.
As my final exhibit, I present the penultimate game of that season against Saracens at KP. For some reason, the attacking philosophy that had beaten Sale and Gloucester was abandoned until the final twenty minutes, which we then dominated but were unable to score. Would we have if we had given ourselves an extra sixty minutes of opportunity?
The correlations between these two periods are that we played attacking rugby and went on good runs, probably our best runs of the last decade.
Richards obviously believes that a negative style of play through the forwards works best, and that must surely be behind the continued lack of significant game time for Joel Hodgson. For further evidence, look at Chris Pilgrim.
I’m not suggesting that Pilgrim should be first choice, Mike Blair is supremely talented and plays an intelligent game. But Warren Fury is too slow for me, he is not the type of player who is going to help get the backs running. Pilgrim on the other hand is capable of a turn of pace that we can build on in attack, but like Hodgson he’s not getting the chance. Jordi Pasqualin, also an attacking scrum-half, was frozen out last season.
Alongside scrum-half and fly-half, we are crying for a truly creative centre in the mould of Mathew Tait. Adam Powell is the only midfielder this season who has looked like making breaks, and he does, but he doesn’t have quite enough pace. Maybe Jamie Helleur could make a difference once he’s fit again.
I wonder if Richards doesn’t back himself and the coaches to run an attacking team after his exile, as he set the stage for Harlequins to become a fantastic team to watch. Certainly, he must believe that the squad isn’t capable of playing such a style.
But we are already at the wrong end of the table, we were dire against Gloucester in the Cup and Harlequins last week, and I think people who look in their heart of hearts will admit that Northampton away wasn’t quite as brilliant as has been suggested.
The next three league games are Exeter away and then at home to Wasps and Sale. All are winnable. Why not let the team off the leash and see if results improve? We have scored twelve points and conceded ninety-three in our past three league games – it’s not like things are going to get worse.
(Follow The South Stand Choir on Twitter: @SouthStandChoir)