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Taking an influential player out
Taking an influential player out, illegal play or brilliant tactics?
There are times when a team has such a giant of a player that not only will his team-mates do everything to get them the ball, but the opposition literally engineers their entire game plan to shutting out this potential match winner.
Using such an asset, or targeting such a threat, has been part and parcel of rugby since the game began.
There were early examples of players being singled out for attention, or team’s retaliating in kind, none perhaps more famous than the 1974 British and Irish Lions “99 call”.
This call to arms was a prepared tactic by the Lions who felt the Springboks won their games through physical intimidation only, so legendary Irish forward Willie John McBride said whenever “99” was called, the Lions were to literally attack another player to ensure the South Africans wouldn’t be on the front foot.
Such tactics are not recommended!
In the professional era we of course look back to Jonah Lomu, the All Blacks wing considered by many to be rugby’s first global superstar, a man with such dominance that many of us grew up screaming at our televisions “get it to Lomu!”, while the big left wing became a target as his career progressed.
The Springboks perhaps became the first team in history to develop a sliding defence that only moved to the right, as they worked furiously to limit Lomu’s influence during the Rugby World Cup Final.
The likes of Natal wing James Small, and later Reds back Ben Tune, became noted for their effectively in chopping Lomu down, with one Wallabies team selecting the latter simply because of his effectiveness in stopping the All Blacks giant.
A wing though can be limited as they are a position that relies on their team creating necessary opportunities, and of late, it has been the openside flanker or halfback that have been the players running around with bulls-eyes on their backs.
All Blacks halfbacks, namely Byron Kelleher and Justin Marshall, were relentlessly targeted at times, with team’s surmising that if they couldn’t pass the ball to their backline – then New Zealand’s effectiveness would be dramatically reduced.
Of late the openside flanker has been chiefly targeted, and while there have been more than one or two attempts to limit the influence Richie McCaw has on the game, it seems the All Blacks captain has cunning methods of overcoming this.
Primarily it could be, beyond simple evolutions of his game, that McCaw is no longer the breakdown menace of old, but is a prominent ball carrier, tight defender and roaming link to his backline - all roles that can’t be shut down in the same manner that ‘fetching’ does.
In this, the Wallabies have found that David Pocock is now arguably rugby world enemy number one.
When the likes of Robbie Deans and Josh Kronfield said that Pocock was probably a better flanker than McCaw, they may have been right in comparison to current abilities directly over the ball – but were the All Blacks captain’s evolutions to his game deliberate to not only widen his brief, but prevent being taken out?
Pocock is rarely seen carrying, defending or roaming, as his pet province is the breakdown, and many would rate him as the best pure breakdown operator the game has at this time.
But the breakdown, guerrilla warfare even on the quietest of days, is where plenty can happen, and Scotland, Wales and more recently the All Blacks have found that keeping Pocock out of the game made their lives easier.
And it was a lot easier to do this in the chaos of the ruck situation.
Deans said it was happening after play had moved on from the breakdown ground zero.
“It's more so for the touch judges because it's not so much at the breakdown, it's long after the breakdown is over," Deans said.
"The ball is gone and the game is carrying on, and players are being denied the ability to participate in that game. It's the touch judges' responsibility, because the referee is invariably watching the game."
Such tactics are part of the modern landscape, with players lying over players, blocking, taking out, running illegal running lines and other tricky tactics designed to give you an edge in the heat of battle.
Muhammad Ali once said that if he could have used something other than his fists, and gotten away with it in the ring, then he would have done it because the other “mother” is going to do exactly the same thing to you if they have the chance.