If one day you decide to watch an old game of rugby, look no further than the legendary Barbarians v New Zealand game of 1973.
You probably remember what was called the Try of the Century, scored by Gareth Edwards at the very beginning of the contest. Well, the rest of the game is just as good.
But if you want to appreciate this game to its full value, go back just twelve years in the past to what was called, at the time, the biggest game of rugby ever. Certainly in some parts of the world anyway. I’m talking about France v South Africa in 1961. The match that ended the Springboks tour in Europe. The South Africans had defeated the four Home Nations on their way to a Grand Slam and were considered with the French as two of the best sides in the world.
The clash was supposed to be an incredible game. According to the commentators, it was: “sheer power”, “impeccable technique”, “great strategy”. They were truly amazed!
Now I warn you, nothing could bore you more than watching this legendary game. In the whole first half, you will barely see three passes in a row. The whole game is riddled with handling errors and never-ending scrums. Add to this, nearly every player on the field tries to kick for touch at any opportunity. The comparison with the Barbarians game, made of never-ending movements where every player touches the ball, is appalling.
What could explain such a discrepancy between two games separated by merely twelve years?
Players were still amateur in 1973, they had the same ball and the same boots. But there had been a rather discreet yet fundamental change. The laws.
In 1961, you could kick directly into touch from anywhere on the field and still get a lineout where the ball had crossed the touchline. In 1973, you had to be in your 22 to do that, just like today.
There might be many other explanations, but I believe that this one is absolutely key. Before that change, rugby was a territory game. You would kick into touch until you get a good lineout in the opposition 22 and only then would you try to attack and score a try. As it was forbidden to lift players in lineouts, every throw had a fifty-fifty chance to go either way which reinforced the importance of territorial occupation.
After this blessed change, attacking from everywhere on the field and winning was possible as the Barbarians showed magisterially in wet conditions.
Why bring this up?
This is a good lesson from the past, especially in this time of law modifications. I doubt the recent changes will have the same impact but they might very well lead to unexpected consequences that will shape the game.
Author: Ambroise Blanluet
Hey there, I’m Ambroise and as my strange first name suggests it, I’m French. I am an absolute fan of the game in general and of the All Blacks in particular. I also play at an amateur level for my university where the gameplan essentially consists of drinking beer.