Saturday, 21 March 2009

British Lions Tour: physical confrontation without foul play

The South African Springboks have long been known as one of the most physical - some would say dirty - teams in international rugby. There certainly have been some unsavoury incidents involving South African teams over the years, none more so than the 1974 Lions tour when the Lions famously employed their "99 call" to combat the Springboks' off-the-ball tactics:

In recent years however, the International Rugby Board has done a good job of cleaning up rugby, assisted by advances in video technology, the sin bin, and the use of citing commissioners to mete out punishment for foul play after the game. Stuff still happens - rugby is a confrontational contact sport after all - but rarely on the scale seen here.

Sin Binning and Sending Off

Teams and players are generally a lot more circumspect these days - England's 2002 demolition of the Springboks at Twickenham clearly demonstrated the effect of a red card early in a game. England would probably have won that match anyway, but certainly not by the record margin they achieved if the Springboks had not had to play the majority of the match with 14 men.

Evidence suggests that even having a player receive a yellow card and being sent to the sin bin for 10 minutes usually results in points against his team, often from the accompanying penalty, but also from the physical advantage it gives the opposition. And even if points aren't scored within the period of the suspension, it's likely that the extra effort expended by the rest of the team to cover for the missing player takes a toll later on in the match.

Physical Domination in Rugby

But while we will hopefully not see any punching or blatant foul play during the 2009 British Lions tour, physical domination of the opposition is still a fundamental of the game, and we should expect no quarter to be asked or given by either side. In recent years the Springboks have not often strayed too far from their traditional pattern of play, based on a solid foundation of forward play to get over the advantage line and creating space out wide for their classy backs. When they have experimented with playing a more expansive game, they have invariably come unstuck.

It remains to be seen what tactics the British Lions of 2009 will employ, but they will need to at least match the Springboks in the scrums, lineouts and at the breakdown if they are to control the play.

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