More than just science

When the dust settles and we have stopped poring over the footage of England v Wales, the fact remains: the difference between these two sides was minimal. There was a noticeable contrast come sixty minutes but by the end, only a kicked penalty lay between these two famous foes.

Many have labelled the difference guts, some say it was keeping your head in a raging storm. I agree, both these elements played their part but, and we are going back to an old argument I’m afraid, I feel the difference is England’s reliance on science rather than art for which they ultimately paid the price.

You don’t have to turn back too many pages on this website to see how I feel about Stuart Lancaster. I like him. He is easy to like. Humble, uncomplicated, selfless; a man who has worked incredibly hard to get where he is. I admire the way he has tried to cultivate team ethos; he has been honest and brave enough to make tough decisions. However, I feel he has a weakness.

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Lancaster picked a team on Saturday set up to defend. The leak of that formation was unfortunate but didn’t really hinder the process. And for a majority of the match the ideology worked. England contained Wales, penalised them with set piece ascendancy and kicked the points. But you see, when you set up a side to defend, that’s all people concentrate on, and you only have to get it wrong once and it has failed. Cue Scott Williams around the outside shoulder of Sam Burgess. The water was coming in; panic rippled through the ranks. George North found a little bit of space; defenders started to scramble, attempting to plug holes as fast as they appeared. Even when Wales’ flotilla started to break up, there was little artillery available to make waves. England, unfortunately, had come equipped to deal with the science of defence.

This game of rugby is straightforward when broken down. It becomes a science, a multi-layered one for sure, but still a science. If you do this, this and then this, that will happen. The analysts will show you with their red arrows and still photographs; they will use statistics to illustrate how, where and when and subsequently why. You can distil this game of ours, but in doing so, you leave yourself a tiny bit short. For, as long as this game is played by humans and not preconditioned robots, there will always be that unaccountable moment of art. Or ‘creativity’, is that a better word for it here? Our ability to create and be creative: the unique human characteristic of invention and imagination; when, under pressure, you produce something from seemingly nothing.

We as fans live for it. Think of any of your favourite moments on a rugby pitch and rarely do they come from predetermined processes. The science in the minds of Blanco, Campese, Gibson or Serevi is quickly turned into art. Momentary calculations based on feel and a heightened sense of time and space, and a love and knowledge of the game that allows them to see things no one else can. Forwards have it too. How does Richie McCaw do that? Where did Richard Hill come from? Yes, these men use science but ultimately they are artists, like Picasso with his geometry and Mozart with time. As I’ve said, players who can conjure something out of nothing. And what we mean by that is, something out of something we can’t see. Because they can see it.

You get the impression Lancaster and perhaps Farrell and Rowntree wouldn’t like this idea. You guess they would like all this to be governed by strategic pragmatism. Eliminating risk rather than embracing it, selecting the tried and tested rather than those with which the unchartered is possible. How they would have hated Lloyd Williams’ cross field hack; it was based on supposition not fact, chance not evidence. Williams was relying on a gut feeling that because of all the games he has played, someone might be inside. Might is a word Lancaster would shun. Might was all Williams had to go on. Might is seldom good enough, and yet it was, for that moment.

Waisale-Serevi 

Sonny Bill Williams’ sumptuous offload to Fekitoa against Namibia wasn’t science. Yes, yes, of course, science is involved; practice, running lines, strength, pace, support – I get that. But ultimately, the final piece in the jigsaw is artistry. A moment no-one knew was coming until it arrived. Even Fekitoa was chancing his arm; sensing, hoping, gambling that SBW may just try to keep it alive; create a signature offload; Williams, in turn, was trusting someone had read his mind: the combination was a work of art, it had us all marvelling. Where is that in England’s current backline? Where is the unaccountable force?


For me, if this England team fails, and I dearly hope they don’t, it won’t be because of wrong calls, or a lack of leadership or even those chosen to take the field. It’ll be because Lancaster and his crew didn’t believe in what we all know to be true: that in this game, you will need more than just science. You need to trust in art, in the undetermined effects that are yet to come together. Pack a side full of tangibles and quantifiables but remember to leave room for the unknown. Pick an artist, someone who will dare to be creative.

You see, science will give you sound, but artistry turns it into music. And those England fans would dearly love to dance.

Sam Roberts © 2015. (Text only). All Rights Reserved.

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11 Responses to More than just science

  1. Jim Fearon says:

    Well said Sam and thank you. The frustration I have felt since the team was announced articulated perfectly. I wish Bombet et al. Would read this and accept it. Sadly, after striving so hard to develop the team we were all falling in love with during the 6N, they lacked the balls to back it.

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  2. David Slade says:

    Excellent piece but a “hack”? That word is wholly unsuitable for Lloyd Williams’ perfectly weighted and perfectly placed chip/dink/crossfield grubber.

    There is no artistry in a hack.

    A hack was what Tom Wood was attempting when he knocked Liam Williams out.

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  3. Roundy says:

    But England have their artists. Brown mixes science and art beautifully, better than most. Joseph unfortunately was injured but another who can mix with the best. Lancaster has filled the canvas many times. Is the problem less about art and more about balance? If you look at the English midfield of Barrat and Burgess are they not too similar in that they play a similar role? Barrat has been disappointing in the competition so far and with Joseph out would Burgess and Slade not have given a more balanced midfield, brawn and beauty or science and art, whatever you fancy.

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  4. jamie819 says:

    I am beginning to wonder if this coaching group has reached the limit of how far it can go. As you note, Lancaster, Farrell and Wig are a fine bunch of blokes, and they have instilled all the ‘culture’ you could ever want in a sports team into this group, but are they truly capable of making it into a world class outfit?

    I suspect not, and for the exact reasons you say – they go by the book too often. Henry Slade should have double figure caps by now but he doesn’t because players like 12T, Burrell and even Tomkins are more scientifically viable. They will hit their lines and make their tackles and produce good data but will they provide that moment that can win games, a la Williams?

    What I frequently wonder is how much say Mike Catt has in selection meetings – and the answer I keep coming back to is ‘very little’. Catty was a ball player and a guy with incredible vision – there was precisely none of that in the England team to play Wales. Even the likes of Brown, Watson and May don’t really have vision – they are superbly exciting runners, but I’m not sure you can argue they see those little gaps and spaces that can unlock a defence.

    NZ see a guy like Fekitoa or Milner-Skudder and fasttrack them straight into the team. Aus have done it with O’Connor, Cooper, Beale in the past and even SA have stuck Kriel in there after very little professional rugby. The England selectors seem loathe to take that kind of risk.

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  5. Pingback: If Henry Slade's time isn't now, when is it exactly? | The Rugby Blog

  6. JamesB says:

    Does this not allude back to the exact same article you wrote about SL not picking a certain Danny Cipriani? What you are basically saying is yes, England have the players with all the skills necessary, we, as a team, are missing that flair and that “un-known” quality that Danny brings, have I read this correctly Sam?

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    • Sam Roberts says:

      It’s not just DC – I’d like to see him given a chance but I can understand that there might be other reasons for him being excluded. I feel Ford has what I’m talking about, Slade too. JJ definitely. Tuilagi has it also. England’s backline on Saturday night is the furthest away we’ve been. Let’s hope England are on their way back.

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  7. Bryan says:

    Sam, I know you are not keen on SB, but let’s have some sense of balance shall we? The game was lost in the forwards and confirmed when SB was taken off. England were ten points on the lead, Jamie Roberts hadn’t had a sniff. Don’t make Burgess a fall guy for the failings or decisions of the coaching team.

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