Wednesday, January 14, 2015

"Hybrid Rugby" - it's here to stay!

The concept of a "code" and the style within the union game, by @BigJoeShep...


Well we’ve heard a lot about “Hybrid Rugby” this season and I’ve even used the expression a number of times in my own pieces and comments when referring to it in a generally negative manner regarding MO’C and his defensive approach to it’s use at Leinster. But what is it and why is it growing, both as a concept for a game in its own right and elements of the “Style” within our game? Will it be adopted across the board and could we see a fusing of codes eventually?

An abridged version of how the codes split. Following a schism in 1895 in Rugby Football, separate parties formed Union and League and these were initially the same save for one wishing to remain amateur and the other pushing to compensate players for missing work and as such the concept of the early paid or as we would know it, professional status originated.  A short time later however, the rules for League were altered and two very different types of Rugby ensued. A cartoon from the time captures the thoughts on both parties as to the split……….Money and Hierarchical Position!


A cartoon lampooning the divide in rugby. The caricatures are of Rev. Frank Marshall, an arch-opponent of payments and James Miller, a long-time opponent of Marshall. The caption underneath reads: Marshall: "Oh, fie, go away naughty boy, I don't play with boys who can’t afford to take a holiday for (Rugby) football any day they like!" Miller: "Yes, that’s just you to a T; you’d make it so that no lad whose father wasn’t a millionaire could play at all in a really good team. For my part I see no reason why the men who make the money shouldn’t have a share in the spending of it."

Seems to me, we have come full circle with the advent of Billionaire/Millionaire owners at Union clubs in todays game and the potential OR reality of those same people “Buying” their way to trophies, getting around the “Salary Cap” system and other ways which are changing the face of the game as we know it?? 

There are though still similarities between League and Union but in essence the key difference at least in players on the park are that whilst Union has 15 players, League have 13 and the main difference being in League there are no Flankers although the 2 League second rows are a lot more loose and similar to Union Flankers in that respect. Likewise there are differences in points scored and other matters.

Australia has formed a Hybrid Code Organisation and trialed games that have been received well and it has been mooted that a combined code could be adopted and there is even plans for a top League V Union game in the very near future. Perhaps as one commentator described it, a “Super Test” of the best. Australias League Kangaroos V New Zealand Union All Blacks possibly??

The game combines the ‘rules of Rugby League’ and the ‘laws of Rugby Union’, with the addition of a number of unique ‘Hybrid Rugby rules’, to enable a Rugby Union side to play a Rugby League side. The field position of the team in possession determines the mode of play.

When the team in possession is in their own half of the field, the game is played in accordance with the rules of Rugby League (‘Play the Ball’). When the team in possession is in the opposition’s half of the field, attacking the line, the game is played in accordance with the laws of Rugby Union (‘Ruck and Maul’). 

Union legend Mark Ella, stated, “This concept is a winner for both codes and will capture the imagination of the Australian public and the world at large”. Bob Dwywer the former Australian Union National Coach stated, “This shouldn’t be perceived as a rival code – it’s an opportunity for both games to come together and achieve something special.” whilst Bob Fulton the former Australian League National Coach opined, “ This game has got legs. I think it’s a game that can get the best out of the elite athletes from both codes and encourages them to keep developing their skills.”

From our own perspective, a number of teams in Europe are playing their own version or “Style” of “Hybrid Rugby” in that they are bringing in both players and the playing “Style” of League to both the Premiership (Bath and Sarries), French Top 14 (Toulon and Clermont) and Pro 12 (Leinster, Connacht, Glasgow and Cardiff - to greater or lesser degrees) Clearly some will disagree with these choices and there’s possibly others but look, here’s the thing, if you bring in either League cross coders OR players from SANZAR (South Africa, New Zealand & Australian Rugby) plus Pacific Region then you will get (for me) a version of that anyhow. Just look at Super 15s. If that’s not a version of “Hybrid” I don’t know what is. Fast, Attacking, Open playing rugby. It’s what Rugby is meant to be about. exciting for both players and fans alike. 

The idea and for me the only way it really works, is when it is coached by an attack minded coach and it is used to introduce a genuine contest for the ball, whilst eliminating defensive kicking and continual stoppages usually associated with many Union teams, flat, slow paced and dreary rugby. It endeavours to bring about a free flowing attacking style of a game. The build up from a strong scrum or line-out, a Scrum Half who is there lightening fast,(and no rubbish, wasted box-kicking unless you have a lightening set of backs who are well drilled!), an Outside Half who has vision to get the ball away and control the game, with overlapping central channels where players have strength and a powerful physique but are a mix of fleet footed, side-stepping, attacking, Tap n Go merchants, unafraid to run at defences and who are strong in the tackle when in defence themselves. Players who are on their team mates shoulder, not flat receiving the ball at slow speed and where the offence (if you can call it that) stalls to an uninspiring grinding mundane halt at the breakdown, where at best the attacking team come away with a penalty that inevitably is kicked for 3 measly points cos that’s the weak, defensive, win ugly / win by a scrape / win at any costs mentality and at worst, you lose the penalty cos it’s ripped out of your possession or you give away an infringement………………..ring a bell to anyone?

Yes, it does come with some down sides, the Bish, Bash, Bosh up through the centre of the park if it’s not executed well and you generically need larger more physical players for that, Toulons Mathieu Basteraud is a prime example Look at what even “Saint Joe” Schmidt did by putting in Henshaw / Payne in the Autumn Internationals. Will there be a place for the likes of Ian Madigan at 12 for Ireland? I don’t subscribe to the way of thinking that we should be making man-mountains out of EVERY young player coming through, but we ARE putting pressure on them that they believe that’s what is required…………………..

A comment I saw recently said, what if BOD was breaking through now, would he be ruled out cos he wasn’t physical enough? A mixture of physical strength and speed in the centre channel would work best for me ergo, Madigan at 12 and Henshaw  at 13. (Payne is a great No 15, lets not mess around with him). How many potential “BODs” are we losing because they aren’t big enough? 

Hybrid Rugby at Leinster then…………I’ll keep this brief for once. It does not work with a defensive minded coach. I’m not having a go at MO’C. I like the guy as a coach and have publicly stated BUT I don’t believe it is how Leinster traditionally play? Leinster defend well when required and have produced their best rugby when coming on an attacking style. All those aspects I stated above. Therefore, perhaps Leinster Rugby were the instigators of “Hybrid Rugby” even before it became fashionable to do so and without actually realising it. Perhaps having Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt as coaches supreme, their style of SANZAR rugby created that in its best form…... attacking rugby. What we have now though is a defensive version that neither the fans nor players are used to or like and it at best allows us to win ugly and scrape by and at worst, lose or are put under extreme and testing pressure by clubs in Pro 12 in the lower positions that we should be easily putting to the sword. 

As for the development of “Hybrid Rugby” as a concept. I believe it will continue to grow and develop both as a “Style” within the Northern Hemisphere game and as a developmental code and yes one day, not to far away, we’ll see a “Super-Test” between the top Union club and a top League club or perhaps even the same at National level. I doubt that it will take off enough to take over the current codes. Rather, I support the development of the “Style” and the top cross-coders being inculcated with the Union game to ensure that we exploit the opportunities for exciting, flowing rugby that’s attractive to all. Time will tell.

@bigjoeshep is the Owner and Head of Information & Knowledge Management at Digital Knowledge Zone.   An avid Leinster & Ireland Rugby fan, he came to rugby at the late age of 24, was a tight head prop, had at least 2 good runs in every game and retired at only 36 after 3 operations on his legs and now forms the 4th "virtual" person in a front row each time his beloved teams are playing (much to the annoyance of his suffering girlfriend who has to put up with being "embraced" by the Big Fella at each scrum!!!)

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