Rugby World Cup: Individual identity not lost in new position-less game

New Zealand All Blacks number 8 Kieran Read attending a training session on Oct 5, 2015.
New Zealand All Blacks number 8 Kieran Read attending a training session on Oct 5, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

The times, they are a-changing. The play at this Rugby World Cup, and at the highest levels of the game, has morphed into a different one compared to what most purists played.

What is indisputable is that we are seeing more action in attack, leading to more tries and harder hitting defences at RWC 2015.

Professional rugby is a showcase of players in peak physical condition. They have the time to hone and fine-tune skills to allow them interchange positions at will. It used to be that the back row just tackled and stole the ball for the backs to use and score.

The likes of Kieran Read of New Zealand, Michael Hooper of Australia and even Michael Leitch of Japan has proven that times have indeed changed. Their ability to outrun backs and create play out wide was unheard of just four years ago.

Reed often is found on the wing charging down, side-stepping a winger and scoring with such grace. Wales centre, Jamie Roberts, is a doctor, and looking at the size of the man, he would create a lot of consultations for himself when he propels his 1.93m, 110kg frame at opponents.

In fact, the game has being changing even from the last RWC in 2011. Front rowers like South Africa's Bismarck du Plessis were seen over the weekend chipping over defenders and displaying outrageous passing skills, something unheard of 10 years ago.

Rugby is a linear game unlike the likes of soccer and American football. In those sports, you can pass the ball forward and attackers can sneak in behind defences with clever running lines to break down the backline and score.

A strong line of defenders on the rugby field closes the space - there is literally nowhere to run.

The current defences seen by all the teams in England are fast and look to deny space, taken directly from Rugby Union's cousin Rugby League. Attacks need to be creative, and players have to be multi-dimensional and be able to execute a variety of things in more than one play.

It used to be that the forwards would just do the dirty work of securing the ball while the backs scored the tries. It's clear that both sets of players now interchange to some degree and are looking to use the width of the field.

Like a rubber band, the more you stretch, the thinner the defence in the centre is. Break that centre defence and the whole field is open for the try.

That said, northern hemisphere teams like France and Ireland still depend on a heavy gameplay that sees their forwards doing a lot of work to attack the tighter fringes of the game. France are known for their flair but the European winter (where rugby is played) is cold and wet. The quicksand-like conditions help players develop a fierce forward orientated game.

In that regard, Ireland vs France (FOX Sports 2, Sunday, 11.30pm, Singtel Ch 115 & StarHub Ch 209), the last game of Pool D, will be a key match to watch. Ireland have been quietly consistent, but again, this is a totally different set of circumstances when you are playing for a quarter-final place that could affect your team's road to the finals.

Australia has demonstrated that success through moulding a team around your players strengths and individuality. I had the distinct honour in 2005 to be the forwards coach of the Singapore Under-16 team. The team toured the Northern Territories of Australia, and played three games against the city, country and state teams.

The Singapore boys were fresh out of school and were not expected to win against bigger and more experienced boys. The coaching team forged a simple structure with the strengths of the players and the results stood.

Singapore beat all three sides convincingly against boys who had beards and weighed almost 110kg at the age of 16. Using structured play as a platform to show individual brilliance was a hallmark of that squad, many of whom went on to play for Singapore at the senior level.

That is pretty much how rugby is now. The game is structured to present opportunities for individuals to shine, be it in breaking the line or running to support your team-mate.

Scrums and lineouts are still technical and as important as ever, but one is no longer on the pitch to do just one job and walk around participating.

Preparation thus becomes even more important, and as Wallabies defence coach Nathan Grey said at a press conference on , "We only have control of how we prepare and how we train, on our improvement day by day and our focus - it does sound a bit boring, but it's honestly all we are doing."

Team work does not necessarily mean a loss of individual identity. Just ask the All Blacks and the Wallabies for starters.

stsports@sph.com.sg

Note: Jonathan Leow, 35, was a Singapore national rugby player and previously coached the national Under-19 team. He also played for the University of Sydney and in the lower divisions in New Zealand. He is currently the vice-president of the Singapore Rugby Union and the organising committee chairman of the Singapore Cricket Club International Rugby Sevens.