The industrial revolution forged the character associated with the indomitable spirit of the British Bulldog.
The teak-tough, hard working grafter. The laudable idea of the man who ‘puts in a shift’ was born. Organised and codified sport, a novel concept in the 1850s, reflected the most prized values of that society. Hard Work.
At the time, of course, Ireland was part of the British Empire, and Dublin the Irish capital city was overrun with the poor seeking work in the newly built factories and docks. The Irish navvies that moved to the UK and eventually spread to all corners were prized for their work ethic. Their ability to relentlessly swing the pick.
Friedrich Engels, writing on the poverty he encountered in Dublin, then a city of the Empire, commented: “The poorer districts of Dublin are among the most hideous to be seen in the world. True the Irish character which under some circumstances is comfortable only in dirt has some share in this.” This idea that the Irish were only happy when in misery was the predominant philosophical outlook.
By halftime in the Crusaders game on Saturday, Sean O’Brien led the Lions in metres carried and tackles made, he hadn’t conceded any turnovers, and he was neutralising the highly rated Crusaders back row. Disrupting their flow of quick ball, he was relentlessly swinging the pick. A team with a 14-0 record was in serious danger of not being able to score a try. The Crusaders didn’t have an answer to the workhorse. Players programmed to create couldn’t handle the nihilism of the Lions back row.
Creativity though almost always overcomes grim determination. The Lions, after Saturday, have truly set their stall out. The only way they can win the Test Series is to be as Engels intoned “comfortable only in the dirt”.
When Dave Gallaher left Donegal to emigrate to New Zealand in 1895, a weight was lifted from his family’s shoulders. The prospect of grinding poverty in Ramelton or grinding poverty on the filthy streets of Dublin evaporated aboard The Lady Jocelyn bound for Katikati in the Bay of Plenty. Opportunity awaited, and as with so many of the émigré who found themselves on the Southern Islands, their version of organised sport was characterised not by hard work, but by release from the same.
The development of rugby, in splendid isolation from the industrial revolution, created the All Blacks in 1905 and Dave Gallaher’s “Originals”. Their legacy looms large over the history of New Zealand rugby. The connection the current players feel, and their visceral connection to their forebears through the Haka, means that they must continue to create, to innovate and to improve.
The statistics bear this out, and the Lions know it.
New Zealand of today
In the 2016 Rugby Championship, New Zealand scored 38 tries in 6 games. 6 more than the other teams combined. In their run of 18 games unbeaten, they scored 70 tries in total. That’s an average of roughly four tries per game. Of those 70 tries, 21 were scored in transition from defence to attack, 24 were scored without creating a ruck. We witnessed rugby played as a contact evasion sport. The Lions, on the other hand, are fully aware that they can’t compete with this. So line speed and tackle accuracy are the new religion. The new romantics of the Southern Hemisphere are about the meet the rugby equivalent of the industrial revolution.
The All Blacks are ruthless in their conversion rate of line breaks and turnovers into tries. The Crusaders made five clean breaks in the game on Saturday and finished none of them. The All Blacks will not be so profligate. The Lions made 14 line breaks with a similar conversion rate and won the game because they tackled harder, missed less and lived offside.
Five line breaks are generally enough for the All Blacks to win a test match, proof that it’s harder to create than to break.
The Lions can relentlessly swing the pick, they can subvert their life’s work into preventing the opposition from playing, they can grind like a Dickensian mill owner, but ultimately the freedom afforded to the creative mind overcomes, as Engels put it, “The condition of the working classes.”
Author: Paul Dunne
Paul is originally from Dublin but has been coaching rugby in the UK for 11 years. He is currently Director of Rugby at Bryanston School in Dorset, and has coached senior and age grade rugby. He started his coaching career at London Irish, and gained an MSc in Sport Psychology in 2010. Paul also teaches History and Politics at Bryanston.