Joey jumping codes?

Newspaper reports this morning suggest rugby league’s greatest current player Andrew “Joey” Johns is about to switch rugby codes and sign a two season contract to play rugby union for the NSW Waratahs for a reported fee of $2 million. Ah the benefits of an ARU awash with cash after a successful World Cup where New Zealand was cut out of the windfall by its administrators’ bloodyminded stupidity!

“I was impressed,” [Waratahs coach] McKenzie said. “Andrew is an impressive individual. I’ve shaken hands with him on a couple of occasions during State of Origin campaigns [when the Wallabies were staying in the same hotel].

“But I never got the opportunity to meet him prior to this.

“His skill levels reflect what time he puts into his game. He’s also analytical. He clearly understands and watches rugby.

“He’s a very driven, very motivated and very professional person.

“I was impressed not just from what he might offer from a playing perspective, but what else he might bring to the table. New ways of looking at things.”

You’d almost think Ewen McKenzie has been reading Troppo Armadillo’s occasional rugby rants. Almost a year ago, after the Wallabies had been flogged by the All Blacks in a Bledisloe Cup match, I mused:

Australia won the last World Cup by taking the game to a new level with rugby league-style tackling, a league-style compressed slide defence and highly disciplined multiple phase, forward-based rugby built on ultra-scientific rucking and mauling to control possession for long enough periods to suck in enough opposition defenders to then launch occasional attacks out wide, as well as excellent lineout technique.

Pretty much all of that was present last night (although the tackling of the outside backs needs work), but the Wallabies were beaten by a new style of rugby. New Zealand now plays rugby like (say) Newcastle or Brisbane Broncos (but not the Bulldogs or Roosters) play rugby league: strung out from one side of the field to the other, playing with incredible width, with a 5/8 (Andrew Johns, Alfie Langer or Ben Ikin in rugby league) able instantly to switch the point of attack with pinpoint 30 and 40 metre passes out to huge fast men like Umaga and Rokocoko or small fast men like Doug Howlett. After a while, the old-style Wallaby structure simply gets too stretched and tired, and the All Blacks run around them and score almost at will.

The new rugby is facilitated by a flat, umbrella defence rather than a compressed slide pattern, with the team disciplined only ever to commit 3 or 4 players at most to controlling a situation at the breakdown, so that the other 11 or 12 are always available out wide to launch an instant attack. It also needs, as I say, a Johns or Ikin at 5/8 able to toss very wide, pinpoint torpedo passes to launch those attacks.

We’ve seen this style of play employed at provincial level by Auckland Blues for the last 2 or 3 seasons with great success, but this (and last week against South Africa) is the first time the national team has successfully applied it. It’s awesome, exciting to watch and very very effective.

The ironic thing is that Australia actually has most of the personnel we would need to play this style of rugby just as well as the Kiwis (althouh it’s far too late to develop and refine it enough to win this World Cup). Tuqiri, Sailor, Rogers and maybe Joe Roff and Latham (but not Matthew Burke, whose day is over) could thrive on this brand of rugby. In fact, it’s precisely the style that Sailor and Tuqiri were accustomed to playing under Wayne Bennett. What we don’t have but need desperately to implement this style is to buy a 5/8 like Ben Ikin or Braith Anasta (Andrew Johns would be better right now, but he’s too old to have a future) and teach them to play rugby without sacrificing their league skills and instincts. In the meantime, maybe Larkham can learn to play this style to an extent.

All of those observations remain true, I reckon. They’re certainly not invalidated by England’s tightly-disciplined forward-based World Cup performance, which eventually accounted for both the All Blacks and the Wallabies. England under Clive Woodward is the modern-day equivalent of the boring, 10 man rugby that used to be played by Sydney University under Dave Brockhoff, and that’s still played to a large extent by just about every Queensland team I’ve ever seen. A team with a skilled fly-half with a great kicking game, playing behind a big, powerful, well-drilled forward pack will always be hard to beat.

But that isn’t the way of the future, especially in the era of megabucks professional sport where rugby necessarily competes for crowd, sponsorship and advertising dollars against AFL, soccer and even that sadly-diminished haven of gang rapists rugby league. Although it remains a potentially powerful organisational strategy for winning some big matches, the boring-as-hell Woodward-style of grinding rugby just doesn’t cut the mustard as sporting entertainment. Moreover, the All Blacks’ dual flogging of England over the last couple of weeks indicates that the Woodward style can be overcome (albeit that it was an England without Jonny Wilkinson and a couple of key forwards from the World Cup campaign).

Andrew Johns can teach Australian rugby teams to effectively play the wide, open, entertaining style of rugby over which he presides at Newcastle Knights, and that the All Blacks have now demonstrated can be succesfully adapted on the rugby union field. The only problem I see, which I mentioned in the year-old quote above, is that Johns’ remaining shelf-life as a footballer is fairly short. His recent injury record underlines that fact even more starkly. A two-year contract isn’t going to get him to the 2007 World Cup, which is where we’d want to see him if his ageing body can be kept glued together for that long. I guess the fallback strategy is to have him imparting the skills and stategies to other up-and coming players (and rugby coaches) in the meantime. Whichever way it goes, rugby union with “Joey” Johns should be well and truly worth watching, even for AFL followers or people who don’t usually like football at all.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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woodsy
woodsy
2021 years ago

I agree with your quote “Andrew Johns [is] too old to have a future”. And, for God’s sake, the last thing the Wallabies need now is another Wendell Sailor. How that bloke keeps his position is beyond me. The transition from league to union at the highest level IS possible as is shown by the success of Tuqiri and Rogers, BUT (and it’s a bloody BIG but), both successful league-turned-union players have the innate ability to be in the right place at the right time, probably developed during their formative years when they played union. Has beens such as Johns would be worse than Sailor, unable to instinctively be where their teammates expect them to be.

The other problem I have with contracting ‘outsiders’ is the obscene amounts of pay required to ‘make’ them switch codes. That money would be much better spent on developing grass roots rugby and supporting the pacific island countries before they all go to play for the All Blacks.

Craig G
Craig G
2021 years ago

I agree Woodsy.

I thought that the litmus test of the lasting benefit of the Rugby World Cup would be the increased attendances and/or participation at the club (and esp junior) level.

My empirical observations to date do not support such a thing has happened.

The strong tendency at the top level to sign on players poached from Rugby League must be so discouraging to those on all the levels below.

Mork
Mork
2021 years ago

Oh come on! He’s the best footballer in the world. And, in the backs at least, the codes just aren’t that different to matter.

As long as his body holds together, he’ll be fantastic. And it would be another reason for a lot of people (such as me) to downgrade their interest in RL in favor of rugby.

Aidan
Aidan
2021 years ago

With regards to your previous post that you quote:

What we don’t have but need desperately to implement this style is to buy a 5/8 like Ben Ikin or Braith Anasta (Andrew Johns would be better right now, but he’s too old to have a future) and teach them to play rugby without sacrificing their league skills and instincts. In the meantime, maybe Larkham can learn to play this style to an extent.

Huh? Larkham is a fabulous runner and distributer of the ball — a much better passer than Carlos Spencer, who has to turn his back to the opposition to pass with any width to this right.

I am not even sure that this is true:

… highly disciplined multiple phase, forward-based rugby built on ultra-scientific rucking and mauling to control possession for long enough periods to suck in enough opposition defenders to then launch occasional attacks out wide …

Take a look at the “State of the Game” report for 2003 (http://www.irb.com/NR/rdonlyres/6C7087BA-CB18-4E89-A466-C276EEC91EDC/0/game_2003.pdf or follow the link from http://www.irb.com/Playing/Game+analysis/). Some relevant statistics are:

80% of tries were preceded by 3 or fewer second phases
only 2% of tries included 7 or more second phases
almost 50% of tries arose from possession gained at the set
pieces of scrum and lineout. Tap penalties however, are almost
as fruitful source of possession as scrums

Makes a lie of the rationale for multiple phases. I realise one cannot say, from such stats, that the Wallabies don’t score more tries from multiple phases (they might be the only ones capable of doing so and responsible for all those tries!).

It backs up my impressions after watching this gameplan for sometime. Not only do you end up with a mismash of defence, your own attacking line is no longer set. You end up with fat props on the wing who can’t finish a move, or noone at all. It is good for denying the opposition possession, but that is about it. A useful tactic to use, but not as a main gameplan.

Cheerio

Aidan

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2021 years ago

Johns is too old to change.
Larkham is over-rated as his passing game is inconsistent, his kicking game is poor and he has lost pace.

Australia patently nees new halves.

aidan
aidan
2021 years ago

*cough*

Larkham’s passing game is inconsistent? He is one of the best long passers of the ball at pace I have ever seen. Granted he doesn’t maybe have the touch of a David Knox (but then who does?), but he is the equal of Andrew Merhtens in this area. Granted his kicking is pretty shitty these days. Pace? He looked fairly handy against the Blacks in the WC semi.

Australia needs some halves when the current crop retire, but it is in NSW where this lack is keenly felt. The problem in NSW is politics, not dearth of talent.

Cheerio

Aidan

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2021 years ago

He takes the wrong options too many times and he doesn’t put a lot of people into the gap.

for a 5/8 his kicking game is woeful.

Look at that very close and tense but boring world cup final without rose coloured glasses and then think why Australia rarely loked capable of scoring a try.

We only fluked a win over NZ on an intercept!

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2021 years ago

I agree with Homer about Larkham (and Gregan). I also agree that Johns is too old, but not for Homer’s reasons. I think Johns is smart enough and has a rugby skill set without peer, and those attributes would allow him to make the transition quickly and effectively. I don’t accept that modern rugby is so utterly different from league (for backs at least) as to make the transition inconceivable. My reservation about Johns is that I doubt his body will stand up to the rigors of top level rugby for another 3 years (through to the World Cup 2007).

I do accept Aidan’s argument that my scenario of Knights-style wide attack and umbrella defence is not a strategy for all seasons. You can’t use it, for instance, where an opponent is effectively deploying a rolling maul and is dominating first phase possession in general. But having the option of swinging opportunistically into this style of play is a great way of keeping opponents off-balance, as the All Blacks have been showing. Recruiting an appropriate elite league 5/8 is probably the quickest way of getting there. I’d prefer to see them try to poach Braith Anasta or St George Illawarra’s Trent Barrett, both of whom are much younger than Johns. In fact that’s what the Waratahs are going to have to do if they want a new 5/8, because Joey’s decided to stay with league.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2021 years ago

johns would be a skilful version of Pommy Johnny.

If you want a running set of backs you have to think again.

One point of switching from League to Union ( but not football of course) is that you have to make your choice of options much quicker in Union.
In League you have 4 or 5 tackles to do something. Waiting for the rucks or mauls 9 sorry I can’t work out which is which) is not quite the same.

I thought youg Giteau looked the goods why isn’t he being groomed or is he?

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2021 years ago

Homer,

I agree a 5/8 has to think quicker in union than league:
(a) because you don’t have a static 6 tackles semi-guaranteed possession; and
(b) because you have a couple of breakaways coming at you as well as your opposite number. But I think Johns would have coped with that OK. As I say, it was his age and therefore robustness and durability that worried me.

A ruck is where the ball is on the ground; a maul is where it isn’t (to grossly oversimplify it – not that I’m an expert).

I agree Giteau looked pretty good at 5/8 when they used him there. I think he’s being used at centre now, isn’t he? But he doesn’t have either the big torpedo pass or the pinpoint kicking game of a Johns etc.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2021 years ago

Ken,
I wasn’t suggesting that.
you can learn both a kicking game and torpedo passes and even putting people into gaps but you can’t learn blinding acceleration.

Thanks for the lesson on rucks and mauls