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The beauty of playing an ugly game

The trend across sporting codes is that hardworking players who make themselves useful are getting valued more than gifted ones. This makes for ugly games, but with the desired results
Thu, Sep 09, 2021

A strange thing happened at the end of Jurgen Klopp's first game in charge of Liverpool (a goalless draw against Tottenham Hotspur in October 2015).

Instead of the usual obsession with passing, passing accuracy, corner, assist and shots on target statistics, those analysing the game turned their focus on poring over the ugly duckling figures – the metres run.

Having coached a Borussia Dortmund side which brought the noise with a rock and roll approach called gegenpressing – German for counter-pressing – Klopp had publicly challenged his new charges by telegraphing that what he wanted to see most from that first match was the effort they put into it.

While he wasn't rewarded with such 'esoteric' things as a stylish performance, or indeed victory, his side's running metres did give the local cross country team's numbers a run for their money.

Klopp is such a big fan of gegenpressing – essentially a counter for the counter-attack very much reliant on busting a gut to ensure the opposition can't breathe, which in turn renders your own game breathless – that he's quoted as saying no playmaker in the world is as good as a good a source of goal-scoring opportunities.

A little like its Moneyball approach to player recruitment, under Klopp Liverpool has gone against the grain on the field, too, fulsomely embracing sheer industry at the expense of style in an environment which worships at the altar of genius.

Liverpool are increasingly not the only team that values a hardworking player over an outrageously talented one, the Springboks are probably the most blatant example of it. Come to think of it, there are similarities between Klopp and Rassie Erasmus, who won the World Cup as the Springbok head coach and has now moved on to SA Rugby's director of rugby.

There's the evangelical preacher's charm, a constant twinkle in the eye that always hints at their knowing something you don't, and an ability to make their game sound standard grade when they talk about it.

But the biggest parallel between them is that while the style of their teams may not necessarily bear it out, both believe in relentlessly attacking the opposition – the difference being that they also do so when defending.

The Boks have come in for criticism recently for playing rugby only a mother could love, so it may come as cold comfort for many that aesthetics are at the bottom of their priorities list when they pick a player.

When the Springbok coaches analyse the game of a would-be Bok there are three things he is told he needs to have in his make-up: ownership of developing his game, discipline and a warrior spirit. Said player is usually also told he’ll never be selected if he doesn’t have those qualities

As you may have noticed, none of those include good feet or hands, exceptional speed, hand-eye co-ordination, a sensational vertical leap, etc. So, the emphasis is on your attitude, as opposed to your God-given attributes.

That's because it is explained to the player in no uncertain terms that the important things are what type of person he is, what his level of conditioning is and only then do they pay attention to how he plays rugby.

That's why in interviews Springbok captain Siya Kolisi almost always talks about the team working hard on the things that don't need talent, working hard being the operative phrase. A great example of this is winger Cheslin Kolbe.

Kolbe is a certified genius whose stepping pulls the pants down on opponents whenever he gets the ball, but he’s almost known more for doing the unsexy stuff than his party tricks.

Instead of saving his energy on the wing waiting for the ball to come his way so he can clown someone, Kolbe chases high balls, tracks back, cleans out rucks and even deputises for the scrumhalf when he's not there, all of this with a body with the negligible physical dimensions of 1.71m and 80kg.

The problem with the Boks, for their opposition at least, is that Kolbe isn't the only one willing to red-line himself for the team. That is why former Blitzboks captain Mzwandile Stick's appointment as an off-the-ball coach in 2018 was probably a game changer for the Boks.

"So, in a training session my responsibility is making sure the players are getting back up on their feet and setting up early... we try to get the right players in place because rugby is a numbers game," he explained recently.

The ability to quickly get back on your feet so you can make yourself useful again is called the bounce. The general expectation of your bounce seems to be that you have to be back on your feet within three seconds.

If you think back to Tony D'amato's iconic "inches" speech in the movie Any Given Sunday, the seconds saved by effort made in the bounce are the new equivalent of the inches that fake NFL team was clawing with their fingernails to put together.

An interesting aside about the importance of a player making himself useful is the speech a Bok recruit is given about work rate. According to the Bok coaches work rate is more important than whether a player makes mistakes.

The explanation given is that they'd rather have a player get himself into 120 battles in a game and winning 80 of them, instead of only getting into 50 and winning 45. With that kind of licence, no wonder the Bok players seem to be in perpetual motion.

A possible example of how hardworking players may well be getting valued more than gifted ones is the transfers of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – whose main difference is that one is a natural footballer and the other an incredibly hardworking athlete, respectively – to Paris St Germain and Manchester United this season.

It’s only a theory, so bear with me, but in thinking about signing both players, how many of the top English managers asked themselves: "He's a genius alright, but can he track back on a cold night in Stoke?" when deliberating about signing Messi.