Winning Ugly

Well, the All Blacks finally got there in the end, just.  But too much of the 2011 World Cup was an underwhelming spectacle where exciting tries took a back seat to unfathomably technical penalties dominating the scoreboard.  This article, published in Inside Sport, July 2007, examines how rugby and other football codes grapple with issue of aesthetically displeasing games.  

All teams ‘win ugly’ from time to time.  Conditions can induce a scrap where the contest is decided within the beating chest of the combatants, rather than sublime skills and perfect execution of tactics weeks or months in the making.  Perhaps a team on a losing streak, down on confidence or simply enduring a frustrating day, unable to convert their dominance on the scoreboard, is forced to do whatever it takes to inch their way over the line.  Teams of lesser means are also notoriously adept at dragging down better skilled opposition to a level in which they can be competitive.

Fans generally accept and are grateful for such wins that may spark a season or be vital to achieving the ultimate prize.   But when ‘winning ugly’ becomes an art form and the standard show, at what point should the fans and the governing body issue an intervention order?

With so many rival codes looking to spirit away junior players, the marketplace cannot contend with ugliness – not for a few games, let alone a few seasons.  Unfortunately the AFL’s response has been shambolic whilst the ARU are under mounting pressure to act.

So, how did a spectacular game such as Aussie Rules get whacked with an ugly stick? Slow to catch on to strategies employed by other invasion sports, in recent years the number of ancillary staff and attention to every aspect of the game has markedly increased in clubs’ efforts to grasp an advantage.  Technology and greater scrutiny of performance and other team sports has also added a more scientific approach to winning.

It has also been found that in most sports, successful teams owe their foundation to solid defence and maintaining possession.  Inaugural coach of the Fremantle Dockers, Gerard Neesham, adapted water polo strategies for mixed results.  This was just the forerunner to Rodney Eade’s introduction of flooding.  Why have six defenders when you can have 16?  For under resourced teams and coaches under the pump, flooding was a means to stem the haemorrhaging or steal a victory against better opposition.  In the Rodney Dangerfield of infamous ugly wins, the struggling Bulldogs inflicted the Bombers only loss in their dominant 2000 season.  Flooding exposed loopholes in the rules and antiquated thinking.  Super-fit athletes, constant rotations and the time required to develop the skills necessary to really master the randomness that the game and the oval shaped ball produces have enabled flooding and tedious possession-at-all-cost tactics.

AFL attendances may be as high as ever, but with saturation coverage in most states and small outdated suburban venues consigned to history, so they should be.  The AFL would appear to possess an inferiority complex born of an inability to boast a serious international aspect.  No other sport changes its rules as often as Pakistanswaps cricket captains.  The only player represented on the AFLRules Committee, Nathan Buckley, recently quit in frustration at the compulsive tinkering by a panel that must feel it needs to justify its own existence.  Despite efforts to beautify what was already a successful and popular product, the game gets uglier and less fathomable every year.

Attempts to further speed the game and eliminate stoppages in play have left umpires, players, coaches and spectators equally confused and bewildered.  Red hot frees to avoid stalemates, immediate kick-ins, a daft hands-in-the-back rule and longer distances required for marks just some of the recent frustrations.  In a sport where grey areas were managed by common sense, there are now fluid and grossly inconsistent interpretations combined with a fair dose of Russian roulette.  Worse still, players are being physically stretched to breaking point in a survival of the fittest.

Successful masterminds of ugly tactics, Paul Roos (Sydney) and Neil Craig (Adelaide), make no apologies.  The Crows, who have only conceded six 100+ scores out of 64 games with Craig at the helm, squeeze the life out of their opponents…and the viewing public.  The Swans, who perfected ‘tempo football’ (where they control the pace of the game) rely on an ultra-disciplined shutdown style that only appeases the Sydney faithful.

After a typical Swans victory over Adelaide (eight goals to six), Roos summed up his thoughts on where his responsibility as coach lay.

“I don’t think they take any points away from you for winning ugly.  It doesn’t make any difference to me as a coach. To the players’ credit they stuck to the game plan.”

Whether the governing body has the right to punish clever coaching is debateable.  There will always be differing opinions on what constitutes an optimal style of game.  A tricky question is who owns the right to dictate the direction of the sport?

Rugby Super 14s is another code that cannot wait for coaches to conjure counter-tactics for teams whose sole objective is winning, at the expense of entertainment and future viability of the game.  Former Wallabies breakaway Simon Poidevin vented his frustration earlier this year at certain teams and at the ARU’s response.

“It’s created a crisis – the crisis is that the game needs to reinvent itself again otherwise it has a very bleak few years ahead.  You hear coaches say ‘we won ugly, but we won’. That’s great that you’ve put your points on the board, but you’re starting to lose a whole army of supporters out there because people are sick of seeing no tries and sick of fly-halves kicking the ball away.”

Waratahs’ crowds are down 27% this season, the Brumbies by 21%.  There are conflicting views over whether the massive drop is due to their paltry scoreboards alone or a more insidious cancer within the code.    NSWRU chief executive Fraser Neill, not surprisingly, believes better results from the Waratahs will arrest the slide.    Former Wallaby Brett Papworth shares the concern of many experts though, citing ‘massive’ problems such as unfathomable rules, skill problems and uninspiring play.

“It’s not even enough to win any more. People want to be entertained”, observed Papworth.

Waratahs’ Super 14s captain Chris Whitaker did his code few favours last year when he actually vowed that his team would win ugly before a game was even played.

“We did it last year. We won a few games pretty ugly last year but our goal was to win the games and that’s what we did.  We copped a bit of flak about that but if it means winning ugly, we’ll do it”, said Whitaker.

To publicly pre-empt such tactics is at best honest, at worst damaging to the sport.   The Wallabies’ coma inducing display against South Africa in front of 65,000 fans at Telstra Stadium last August was a shocker, despite a cliffhanger 20-18 result in the Aussies’ favour.  Gold clad devotees fumed at inept, ill conceived kicking and unimaginative play.

Rugby needs to tread warily in making any rule changes though, for as the AFL has seen, they can have the opposite effect to that which was intended.

Interestingly, Australian Rules, League and Union complainants share the same lament that supreme physical specimens, not footballers, top recruiters’ wish lists.  Arguably, athletes turned into footballers cannot provide the same skilled and creative performances in line with the ideals that purists value.  The counter-claim would be that the incredible hulks running around now bring a new dimension to the sports in question.

Another shared theme is over-coaching – paralysis by analysis stripping away individual flair and teams’ ability to do what comes naturally.  Everything is about playing the percentages.

Shrill cries of ‘the game is ruined, something has to be done’ are nothing new.  Sage experts suggest a wait and see approach – the game will eventually sort itself out.  Without mass media coverage, rubbish games of yesteryear flew under the radar. Regularly waterlogged or muddy grounds naturally induced dour arm wrestles rather than football equivalents to Swan Lake.  The problem is that in the modern era where sports are about appealing to everyone and every game is televised to millions, ugly contests hurt the bottom line.

When it comes to winning ugly, few fingers tend to be pointed at soccer but when hystrionic diving and clutching body parts as if struck by a sledgehammer continue to secure victories, football needs to take a look at tougher penalties for staging.  Despite regular threats to do so, even to the point of an apology by FIFA boss Sepp Blatter subsequent to last year’s World Cup fiasco when the Aussies copped the raw prawn, there appears to be more focus on punishing the other culprit of ugly football, being reckless or deliberately violent tackles.

Compared to other football codes, the world game’s rules are reasonably simple but the power wielded by the referee and their role as judge and jury on controversial, game turning incidents is greatly enhanced.  Furthermore, ugly football doesn’t necessarily mean a 0-0 draw.   When one goal can be golden, it is all the more tempting for teams to play negative, boring football for a large chunk of the game in order to hold onto a precious lead.

One would contend the viewing public holds the strongest claims on the game, along with the players and grassroots participants.  Isn’t their best interests the governing body’s priority?  The conundrum is that the game’s best interests often conflicts with the elite clubs entrusted with showcasing the sport but whose chief objective is to win.  Ultimately, at the highest level at least, coaches will lead a game’s evolution – for better or worse.

What needs to be considered is that there are two types of spectator.  The committed fan or purist would take 20 ugly wins a year but those holding a less tenuous team devotion would prefer to be entertained in a different manner.    Whilst winning, whatever the method, will appease a small percentage of the game’s fan base, doing so at all costs to aesthetic appeal will quickly lose the losers who can’t take any highlights out of the contest.

One can’t blame the game’s gatekeepers for sticking their nose in – problem is few can fathom where they are heading, lest we ever be told.   Maybe one day they will actually ask the real fans, who support their team whatever is served up, what type of game they really want…



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