David Campese: Influence of rugby league is taking away from union's ability to be creative

Campese believes opting to kick the ball away is 'easy' because 'you don't need a brain to kick the ball away'
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Legendary Australian winger David Campese has singled out one specific factor for the widely perceived decline in rugby union’s entertainment value: Rugby League.

One of rugby's greatest-ever entertainers, the goose-step pioneer believes the way the game is coached at the moment is fundamentally flawed and feels a refocusing towards attack over defence is his remedy to repeated stoppages and set-piece turmoil.

"The semis and the final of the Rugby World Cup, the entertainment was very poor," says Campese. "The rugby was unbelievable because it was close, but we’ve got to make it entertaining.

"I thought rugby was about attack, but no. It's about defence now."

Asked why, Campese responded: "Because rugby league has such an influence. We’ve got all these rugby league coaches that spend more time on defence than attack."

This statement is hardly a direct criticism of one country, not even his beloved Australia who crashed out of the World Cup pool stages so spectacularly.

The Wallabies were just one of many sides who installed league coaches into their backroom staff, with Brad Davis replaced by fellow league export Jason Ryles just days before the World Cup.

Elsewhere, the highest-profile teams fill their high-profile positions with league-born coaches. Ireland are led by Andy Farrell, France’s renaissance is rooted in a Shaun Edwards defensive set-up, and England’s defence is currently overseen by one of Super League's greats, Kevin Sinfield.

Campese believes the proliferation of league coaches is detrimental to the game’s entertainment factor, regardless of how successful the teams who employ this strategy are.

"You've got all these rugby league coaches - it's about defence. Rugby used to be about attack, and the attack's gone," Campese says begrudgingly.

This lack of creativity, he believes, is a consequence of league’s influence. With their laws stipulating that the ball must be turned over after no more than six phases to score, teams often kick the ball on the sixth and final tackle.

This is an element that Campese doesn't hold back on: "Because it's so structured now - you get the ball, you hit the ground, the line doesn't move, so you've got to think how are we going to disrupt the defence? The switch, the loop, all those things that are not about kicking the ball away.

"Kicking the ball away is easy because you don't need a brain to kick the ball away."

The supposed programmed thinking of rugby players is another of Campese’s gripes with the modern game. The intricate structuring of games from coaches, in his view, detracts from on-pitch innovation and excitement.

It was a key debate that raged before and throughout the World Cup, flared by Rassie Erasmus’ light show in South Africa’s opener against Scotland and England’s seemingly endless kicking.

"These guys can’t create because all the backline coaches are rugby league coaches. Rugby League is about keeping the ball and then they kick it away because; 'Oh, we've got no options we might as well just kick it away'" says Campese.

"Rugby union, we need to be creative but we haven't got that anymore because it's about structure, structure, structure, and I think that's very sad."

The solution, he believes, lies with a kindred spirit of his. One of rugby's most watchable teams from Campese’s day to the present, France fell cruelly short of World Cup glory at their home tournament, but have arguably been the most entertaining side over the last four years given the balance they have struck in their coaching set-up.

"Look at the French," Campese adds. "The French have been stifled for years because they’ve wanted to be the All Blacks. This time, they actually got a halfback [Fabien Galthié] to coach, who wanted to play running rugby."

France have indeed emerged as a consistently world-class side since Galthié’s takeover in 2019, beating off the trope that ‘you never know which France side will turn up’. They have done so with the expertise of Shaun Edwards, even if one of the most decorated men in league has been coaching in union since 2001.

Campese is not suggesting an eradication of league's influence, but for coaches to stay in their specialist field: "Look at everyone else apart from France – they’re all forwards. They’ve got no idea what to do with a backline."


2019 Rugby World Cup Points Table