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OPINION: NZ should add maul to attacking repertoire

ROLLING ROLLING ROLLING: The maul is fashionable again and has become a big part of the game.

THE ROLLING maul is back with a vengeance and this scribe – along with countless gnarly forwards who long for the rough and tumble of yesteryear – couldn’t be happier.

But it is the South African sides that are reaping its benefits during in this year’s instalment of the Super 14.

The Bulls have showed how effective it can be. They have bullied, smashed and out-muscled every team they’ve played this season and that’s because they’ve used this piece of old-fashioned forward play to devastating effect.

New Zealand – like we were last year under the high ball during the Tri Nations – has once again been caught short by the old foe.

Although Graham Henry tried reinstalling the maul during the early part of his All Black tenure, this pillar of New Zealand forward play in the 1960s and 70s is very much a forgotten art at the top-level these days.

In fact, when is the last time you saw a New Zealand Super 14 franchise – or NPC team, for that matter – getting their drive on and rumbling up the field in unison?

East Coast captured the nation’s admiration using this tactic. The minows from Ngati Porou rolling mauled their way to back-to-back NPC Third Division titles and a Second Division finals appearance during a fairytale run between 1999 and 2001.

But I digress.

Kiwi sides would rather play free flowing rugby. And that’s fine. After all, attacking rugby is entertaining rugby. It ensures bums on seats, so I’m told.

But this style of play requires space, which is a rare commodity at international level. How often have we seen the All Black simply shuffle the ball from one side of the field to the other in recent seasons trying to find holes in the watertight defensive screens that plague the game?

With the opposition no longer committing players to the breakdown, there are no gaps to be exploited, no acres of space for the likes of Cory Jane and Ma’a Nonu to cut some merry cappers out wide.

This is where the maul could help. If done correctly, it can aid the attempt to play open rugby, as it provides the ideal conditions to move the ball wide.

In short, mauls are designed to draw defenders in. And with the new rules outlawing the collapsing of mauls, the opposition are now forced commit players in order to stop a team gaining momentum from a lineout drive.

That opens up space, which in turn leads to opportunities and, most importantly, tries (provided you’re any team but the Hurricanes of course).

Even if defenders aren’t sucked in, they’d likely try to stop the opponent’s weigh on by pulling the maul down illegally, meaning a possible three points or chance to reset and have another crack.

So really it’s a win-win.

Defending the maul, however, has left a few players and coaches baffled this year.

Which is surprising, as it’s Rugby 101, the stuff you learn when you’re a kid running around on a cold Saturday morning.

But the Sunday Star Times ran a story two weeks ago in which Highlanders coach Glenn Moore said it was difficult to stop when a team has its platform set.

That may be true, but like former All Blacks Craig Down and Ian Jones said in the same story, it can be defused before any damage is done.

From my experience, the key is to get in early, hit it hard and make sure you have the numbers. Good body positioning is also paramount. Go too high and you’ll get smashed, as the South African teams have shown.

As well as going in hard and low, defenders must firmly place their feet by digging their sprigs into the ground. That will help set a good foundation to counter the drive. Should you lose your footing, then peel off and re-enter the back of the maul and re-establish your footing.

It’s hardly rocket science, eh?

So the maul is fashionable again. No doubt Messers Henry, Hansen and Smith would have noticed this during their eight-week diet of Super rugby.

The good thing is time is on their side. They can analyse the maul, develop methods to combat its effectiveness and look at incorporating it into the All Black’s repertoire.

Hopefully the ‘three wise men’ will heed the call.

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