Sport Comment: Rugby World Cup final between England and South Africa set to be a battle of the forwards

06:30  02 november  2019
06:30  02 november  2019 Source:   msn.com

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There are few better sights in world sport than a big forward rumbling over the try line and looking around in disbelief.

Don't just take our word for it:

For decades, maybe even centuries, the prevailing wisdom in rugby has been that the forwards will win you the ball, and backs will win you the game. Or, as former Welsh Rugby Union president and late war hero Sir Tasker Watkins put it:

"In 1823, William Webb Ellis first picked up the ball in his arms and ran with it. And for the next 156 years forwards have been trying to work out why."

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As the 2019 Rugby World Cup is coming to its gripping conclusion, the wisdom of the past is firmly being challenged, and it's the pack up forward that's proving critical to putting the points on the board.

Signs of the change have been present for a while, but have increasingly sped into focus. Before this World Cup, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen pulled a selection surprise, omitting stalwart prop Owen Franks, citing the change of forward play and the increased need for mobility for his omission.

"Unfortunately as the three selectors, we believe the game requires us to have big, mobile number ones and number threes and in this case we feel the guys we've named are more so than [Franks], therefore we had to make a tough decision."

The changing game at World Cup time

Since the introduction of the Rugby World Cup in 1987, a curious phenomenon occurs at the biggest stage in rugby; forwards get over the try line more than at any other time between World Cups.

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As a total percentage of tries, the forward eight score a far greater proportion of tries come World Cup time than they do during the major annual international competitions, namely the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship (and their predecessors).

This ticks down slightly when the RWC moves to the knockout stages, but still is up 4 per cent from the long term Six Nations/Rugby Championship average.

That change means forward play has become more important than just retaining possession and drawing penalties for kickers to gain a lazy three points — they are instead now being used as key attacking weapons.

Pictures: Best pictures from the 2019 Rugby World Cup

The Southern Hemisphere won the style battle

There's another shift that has made the packhorses up front more important — the severe decline in scores from penalties over time.

Despite the modern kicking style being pioneered by Irish flanker James Murphy-O'Connor in the 1940s and Australian fans being treated to the sight of lock John Eales stroking the ball over the bar in the early 90s, almost every kicker at international level is a back — usually a fly half.

Think Dan Carter or Johnny Wilkinson slotting three points from another post code. Accurate kickers with big boots are still key to winning rugby, just less than they used to be.

At the 2019 RWC there has been 2.8 tries for every penalty, aided by chaotic weather and wind conditions for much of the tournament. The torrid conditions for kicking has further emphases the importance of the lunks up front, but even looking at the non-RWC trends the tide is clearly changing.

The free-flowing rugby associated with nations from the Southern Hemisphere, who have been active in pursuing rule changes and innovations to promote fast play and try scoring, seem to be winning the stylistic fight in world rugby. Until recent years, far more penalties were kicked in the Six Nations, but particularly since the introduction of bonus points for more than four tries in a match, the number of tries has rocketed.

Come World Cup time, sides have always looked to get the ball down in the in-goal area as a preference, but this has significantly ticked up in recent years. At the same time, conversion rates for kickers hasn't significantly improved at the World Cup — symbolic of the high proportion of tries coming from wingers and the increase from forward play (often from set plays near the line).

The battle of the styles in the final

In the final, the two sides somewhat represent the stereotypes of their hemispheres — South Africa as the heaviest try scoring side, and Owen Farrell playing a large role with his mighty leg.

Both sides have a similar amount of tries from their forward pack (with South Africa slightly ahead), and both have been aggressive (especially against the Tier 2 nations) in seeking the try line.

But beyond the trend of the cup being won (and lost) on the backs of forwards, 2019 has also been the cup of the scrum-halves.

This World Cup has seen the highest proportion of tries coming from the number nine of any World Cup, rendering the position more important than ever. Beyond the increase in scoring, there's a vast difference in how different scrum-halves use the ball.

Springbok number nine Faf de Klerk has been more active in kicking the ball in hand than any other scrum-half in the tournament — indicating the Springboks' desire to gain territory first before attacking for the line later. The English side would be familiar with de Klerk's play, with the South African plying his trade with Sale Sharks since 2017.

This kick-first style was on show in the semi-final against Wales, where he recorded a massive 12 kicks against only 16 passes in the first half.

By contrast, long-term England scrum-half Ben Youngs is more of a distributor than anything else — willing to let Farrell on his outside do the bulk of the kicking when required. While not as kick-averse as Japan's Yutaka Nagare, the Leicester Tigers product has been far more willing to swing the ball to allow his outside backs the room to do damage, such as in setting up Tuilagi's try against New Zealand in the semi-final.

England aren't afraid to attack, and to use their loose forwards to attack with the ball in hand. Billy Vunipola and Tom Curry have been used by battering rams by England — running the ball a lot for a relatively low amount of territory. However, this work allows the English side to build a solid base to attack from.

In the most recent Six Nations, England racked up 24 tries — 10 more than the grand slam winning Wales side.

South Africa also aren't afraid to score, crossing for more tries than any other team in the 2019 Rugby Championship. However, a lot of the South African attacks with ball in hand have come from the backs, particularly Damien de Allende and Willie le Roux.

Given the difference in the way that the sides play, almost every result is on the table on Saturday night — making the game a must watch.

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