Fans want to be entertained, but the British & Irish Lions will succeed if they marry box-office play with looking after the ball.
There may well be more that one way to skin a cat – from top-tier taxidermists to black market mounters, there will no doubt be a variance in where the first incision starts, for example – but the end result is the same: a skinned cat.
In rugby now we think what we want is to be entertained. Much like the cat peelers, there are different ways to do that entertaining – from the off-the-deck offload to the dink over the top and in some rare cases the cut-out pass that does not allow a defence to drift onto you, there are many ways to propel punters’ bums off their seats. However, the end result is the same: rugby at its best is about exploiting space. Sometimes you can do that by doing the basics well.
On Saturday the Lions did not do the basics well against a scratch side, and they underwhelmed. By Monday, Warren Gatland was bristling at being asked again if all of his sides played what has been dubbed “Warrenball” – a style of play that is boiled down to big men getting over the gainline and players following the arm to carry in the same manner. The odd assumption here, of course, is that no one else plays like this on the planet or that every phase is the same for any team that wants to.
For 80 minutes rugby has ripples of nuance and moments of turgid predictability, regardless of who is playing. Yet, with only one Lions series game under our belts, we are now setting up the game of rugby as having only two options – at one end beefy, direct running into tacklers and at the other hot-potato play, with kick-passes, constant offloads and every player dummying. If one is right, the other is wrong, runs the logic.
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It shouldn’t be as simplistic as this, but when we are not entertained we lash out. So the Lions coaches have responded by trying to allay some fears before they face the Auckland Blues on Wednesday. Yesterday Gatland spoke of X-Factor and today Rob Howley consistently mentioned the players preparing for “chaos” – those moments when the game breaks up. The Lions attack coach wanted us to know that as well as this, the boys were going hell for leather.
“We have a hugely competitive squad here and we did a drill yesterday, an offload drill, and the contact was explosive,” Howley went on to say of the team’s determination to loosen the shackles and blast everything. “That’s the challenge for us, sometimes you have to sit back sometimes as they want to give everything in training and we have to make sure we’re smart with that.
“In terms of the contact, we were playing an offload drill and it got pretty heated. We’re mindful of injuries as well, but we are mindful of putting players under pressure as well. So there’s a fine balance but we went from a technical drill into open play and play what’s in front and suddenly it becomes a highly competitive contact.”
This is what many want to hear. Quick hands and a readiness of shoulder is just want the baying crowd will want on Wednesday.
Yet, it would do a little more helps to acknowledge the pragmatists, too. When asked about his own X-Factor among the chaos, the Lions’ starting tighthead to face the Blues, Dan Cole, gave a wry response.
“I’ve been practising my drop-goals…”
The Leicester and England prop had previously explained that the quickest way to the try-line was a straight line but that there are several ways to play – that darn cat again. But here he also had the seasoned pro’s wariness of saying his team had to go to the magic box for the full game.
“I think the X-factor he (Gatland) is looking for, if you get the basics in place, physicality, looking after the ball, if you get the 99% right it comes on top of that.
“He’s not just going to ask us to pull something out of the bag. It comes out when you get everything else perfect. It’s the 1% on top that brings that out.
“I don’t think he’s just looking for me to tap and go from my own goal-line, put it that way.”
Moments of magic are great. But remember the goal of this series is to beat the All Blacks – a team who build their game on punishing errors, sending up plenty of kicks and often simply passing along the line at pace to the man in space. When the fleeting moment of X-Factor is added in, they sparkle.
If or when the Lions are defeated, it will not purely be because they did not employ loads of cross-field kicks or use a cat-flap offload all game. It will most likely be because they still cough up the basics like a fur ball.