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Referees must get penalty ratio right in defence and attack to promote attractive rugby and reward adventure

Pass master … Will Genia.

Pass master … Will Genia. Photo: Getty Images

When you become the first team to hold the Crusaders tryless in Christchurch since 2000, it is difficult to understand why the statistic did not come with a memorable win.

It is disappointing to produce such an effort in defence and not come away with the spoils, but rugby is a wonderful game of chess. The pressure of winning and losing comes down to how you handle a few critical moments.

Before each game, you have a coin toss. The result here is not as important as in a cricket Test match but it still evokes debate, especially if there is a significant wind. Do you play into the wind during the first half or do you take the advantage while you have the chance?

In France, you always choose to play into the wind. The theory is that there is always a "sorting out" period of about 20 minutes, so you would have more rhythm in the second half to come home with a wet sail when everyone is tired. However, this relies on not getting too far behind during the first 40 minutes.

The other decision you make at the toss is whether to kick or receive.

Against the Crusaders, we chose to kick as there are some strategic opportunities you can create through this option. If you are good enough, the kick-off can be a great strategic weapon, as you can give the opposition the ball in a way that causes maximum stress and confusion.

If executed well enough, you can regain possession in their territory through either error or a hasty kick into touch. Less than a minute into the game and you have possession in good territory.

At the weekend, we got a great "fast start", scoring the only try of the match from a well-executed strategy that allowed James Hanson to score in the corner.

The irony of the game against the Crusaders was the team playing into the wind played tactically smarter than the team that had the perceived advantage. When playing into the wind, you tend to carry the ball more and play to the edges of the field to control possession. Particularly against the Crusaders, it is important not to kick aimlessly, which would then be returned with interest to create a field position where penalties can be turned into points.

We played the first half tactically well but were hampered by an inability to remain in the attacking quarter long enough for pressure to turn into points. There were lots of reasons for this but a missed kick for touch and the odd pushed pass allowed pressure to dissipate. Accuracy is paramount in low-scoring, tight games.

There have been countless times in my career, as a player and coach, when you are sitting in the dressing room at half-time discussing the prospect of playing into the wind in the second half. There is always a feeling and look of relief.

Sometimes this ends in frustration, like us in the first stanza. The Crusaders found ways to remain in our half and etch out a win.

The telling statistics in games are not all about possession. The Chiefs lead the competition, but are ranked second last in the percentage of possession they compile. It is more about where you get the ball. The Crusaders were able to manufacture nine minutes more of possession in our half. Therein lies the winning of the game.

We have analysed it and there were probably only three key moments where, if we had our time again, we may have selected a different attacking option. This shows how small the margins are. When you add in a couple of errors, you find the Crusaders were able to carve out a victory on the back of goal-kicking.

In all of the above, there is the obvious input of the officials and there is always great debate about their decisions and their consistency.

There is an appropriate forum to debate that but there is a philosophy I have maintained for some years, which I believe is imperative for the game to function properly. It is the first thing I look at when I analyse the referee statistics.

I am talking about the ratio of penalties against the attacking team against that of the defensive side. For a team to have confidence to play rugby in their own half, they must feel comfortable that, if they are good enough to maintain possession, they can do so without unfair risk.

For me, the ratio of penalties needs to be around 70 per cent against the defence, as this means the referee is concentrating on negating spoiling tactics. If this is done, you see plenty of excitement and ball movement and fans walk away happy.

The closer the margin gets to 50 per cent, the more field position you get from kicking, as teams will - logically - not want to play in front of their goal posts. There has been a litany of games this season where teams have paid the price for playing too much football in their own half. It pains me to say that, but it is more a risk mitigation strategy than a coaching philosophy. It also means tight games are generally decided on goal-kicking.

Wondering what the ratio was against the Crusaders? Almost 50-50.

33 comments so far

  • Totally agree with your comments Link. The refs are not hard enough on the spoiling tactics of the defensive team at the breakdown and their decision-making at scrum time is a toss of the coin. It's appalling and frustrating for spectators. Personally, I'd like to see loose head props allowed to put one hand on the ground to stop a scrum collapsing. There's nothing more boring than a collapsed scrum which has to be re-set. Let's get back to running rugby!

    World in Union
    Date and time
    May 10, 2012, 10:28AM
    • The hand on the ground gives the loosey an unfair advantage in upsetting the body position of the tight head. It's the same reason tight heads aren't allowed to pull the looseys elbow down anymore. If the scrum is actually going to collapse, btw, the loosey would break his arm if he tried to stop it like that. Plus, the hand on the ground actually makes a collapse more likely. These rules are designed to keep the forces going in the right direction.

      Date and time
      May 10, 2012, 11:38AM
  • what rubbish. both teams must have the opportunity to scrap for the ball. Otherwise it becomes too boring like league with lineouts.

    I want to see proper scrumaging and a real contest for the ball.

    The one change I would make is that once the player in possession leaves his feet he must release the ball immediately, not pass it to a team mate or hold it on the ground.

    That would commit more forwards to the ruck ( what a joke word seeing there is no rucking) and create space for the backline.

    Date and time
    May 10, 2012, 11:23AM
    • "both teams must have the opportunity to scrap for the ball", what this ignores is the technical proficiency of a team like the Chiefs, who will strive not to concede a penalty in their own quarter due to kickability, but contest more aggressively in attack as at worst they lose possession.

      Date and time
      May 10, 2012, 2:06PM
  • Personally, I'd like to see the Reds penalised for their constant offside 'shepherding', which sees players running very odd but specific lines during kick receptions and returns - effectively blocking for a catch.

    Do not agree about the ratio, I think it should be 100% against the team who commits a penalty.

    To make such a generalisation is a bit silly - it implies every game is exactly the same, which of course it is not.

    A further question, had the Reds not infringed so much, would they have kept the Crusaders tryless?

    I suggest not.

    Perth via Rakaia
    Date and time
    May 10, 2012, 11:25AM
    • How about McCaw's massive shepherd for Carter to get through the line and almost scored a try?? Much worse than any shepherding on a kick.
      He'd have been over if he'd hung onto the pill instead of passing.

      Big Les
      Date and time
      May 10, 2012, 1:31PM
    • Didn't see it, was it as good as the legendary shepherd that gave Genia the space to score against the Crusaders (and effectively gave the Reds the game) in the final last year?

      Perth via Rakaia
      Date and time
      May 10, 2012, 4:06PM
    • You still bitter, Piru?

      Date and time
      May 10, 2012, 6:37PM
    • No, just trying to give some of these rabid Reds fans a bit of perspective.

      Perth via Rakaia
      Date and time
      May 11, 2012, 10:48AM
  • There's a problem with Link's argument there. Every breakdown needs to be a contest for possession, or you get what we had in '99, a boring rumble up the field with very little width. The balance is great now. There is a fierce contest at every breakdown where the team on the front foot has the advantage. It is and should be difficult for defenders to legally pilfer, but the opportunity needs to be there. Good defensive rucking should minimise penalties and cause opposition penalties. As it stands now, you have to be smart and constructive in your use of the ball, or you'll lose it. In the coach-inspired rules system under which Link finished his playing career, you could just hold the thing until the defense made a mistake. The irony is, they undermined attacking rugby by favouring attack in the rules.

    Date and time
    May 10, 2012, 11:31AM

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