Monday, November 27, 2006

One moment in time

Picture the scene....

It's the 10th minute of the Tri Nations final, arguably the biggest and most important game of your season, if not your career. It's the last tackle, and due to some poor handling and communication the ball ends up in the hands of you, a back rower not renowned for your kicking game. Do you...

a) Hand the ball (and the responsibility) on to your outside backs - after all, they're the flair players, not you?

b) Take on the responsibility yourself, and kick the ball as far down field as you can. Course, there's no real guarantee of accuracy and it could go anywhere - including out on the full?

c) Weigh up your options while moving forward with the ball in two hands, and throw a flat cut out pass to your right to a player in space hitting the ball at speed?

If you're playing in Super League, including those at the peak of the game in this country, then I suspect the answer may well have been a), or possibly b) for those who like to see themselves as multi-skilled. If you're Canterbury captain Andrew Ryan and the date is Saturday November 25 2006 however, the answer was c), and seconds later Australia were touching down for the opening try and had a lead they were never to lose.

So why the difference? Why was Ryan so able to sum up the situation, weigh up the options and execute something that had looked beyond even Great Britain's half backs in the previous four weeks in delivering an accurate pass to a colleague in space?

If you want my opinion - and you must do, otherwise why would you even be here - it comes down to intensity. Andrew Ryan plays week in, week out in a competition that asks him to make snap decisions under pressure umpteen times a game. When he was presented with such a decision on Saturday, it was second nature for him to weigh up the pros and cons of various forms of action and make his decision in adequate time to put whatever he decided into action. How many times are players in Super League challenged to make similar decisions, particularly forwards? Their main objective in attack appears to be either make as many metres as you can then try to slip the offload, or find the floor quickly then generate a quick play the ball. It's all stuff you can do without thinking or in many cases without a significant level of basic skills such as the ability to time and deliver a pass.

Why is this the case though? To me it comes down to the refereeing interpretation in our competition. Often it's all too easy to break down a defence with a simple play, so keen are referees to increase the speed of the game by penalising holding down. When that tactic was taken away from GB by Paul Simpkins' interpretation in recent weeks they looked lost for ideas on how to break down a well organised defence. Take away the quick play the ball and scoot, and suddenly players have to start thinking of ways to create chances, to unlock defences. Often this means challenging the defensive line and then having to make decisions and execute skills with a defender right in your face. The more you do it, the better you get at it and the more like second nature this split second decision making becomes.

By looking to make our domestic rugby league a television product and keep up the pace of the game, are we strangling the creativity out of the national side for the sake of allowing an extra second at every play the ball and denying the attacking side such an easy ride?

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