19th October 2020
Two major rugby finals were played on Saturday: league’s Challenge Cup final between the Leeds Rhinos and Salford Red Devils at Wembley and union’s Heineken Champions League final between the Exeter Chiefs and Racing 92 at the Ashton Gate ground in Bristol.
There were several similarities: both were shown on terrestrial television (respectively, the BBC with 9 presenters/commentators/analysts) and Channel 4 with 8 – whatever happened to Ray French or Bill McLaren commentating with only Alex Murphy or Bill Beaumont in support?); both were played in stadiums that were eerily spectator-free as a result of the coronavirus restrictions; and both entered the last 10 minutes with the game evenly poised (16-16 at Wembley and 28-27 to Exeter at Bristol).
It is the contrast in game management in their respective final stages that is particularly interesting.
At Wembley, once Ash Handley had scored his second try to draw Leeds level (and Rhyse Martin had missed the touchline conversion), it was distinctly possible that the next score would determine the winners of the Challenge Cup. Moreover, it was also highly likely that that score would be a drop goal – as Jonathan Davies, one of the BBC’s commentators, anticipated as early as the 70th minute (though he annoyingly used the Australian term “field goal”).
Sure enough, Leeds twice manoeuvred themselves into position for Luke Gale – their drop goal expert – to make attempts at the extra point. His first effort (a minute or so after Davies had raised the possibility) went narrowly wide, but his second – perfectly struck with 4 minutes to go – sailed through the posts to give his side the decisive 17-16 lead.
The Salford defenders had known what was coming and on both occasions they made valiant attempts to charge the kick down. However, as their captain Lee Mossop acknowledged afterwards, the physical exertions of the game had taken their toll and Gale, knowing exactly how much time and space he had at his disposal, was able to successfully execute a well-rehearsed routine.
As Bristol, in a match in which the Parisian side had never held the lead, a penalty goal reduced their arrears to that single point after 64 minutes. That remained the position when Racing had possession within the Exeter 22 for a full five minutes from the 70th minute onwards, including a run of 19 successive phases, several of which were right in front of the Exeter posts. During this period, the Racing forwards took it upon themselves to make individual thrusts for the try-line in the hope that supporting colleagues would drive them over, before recycling the ball to launch another attempt; their fly-half and playmaker, Finn Russell, touched the ball once.
One wonders at what point Russell might have realised that the forwards’ strategy was not yielding results against the impressively disciplined and organised Exeter goal-line defence. Why did he not take up a position a few yards deeper and demand the ball in order to attempt the easiest of drop kicks that, with the three points on offer, would have given his side a 30-28 lead? Indeed, the longer Racing’s unsuccessful siege of the try line went on, the better the drop-kick option would have been, as the running down of the clock would have reduced the time available for Exeter to make a counter-strike on the scoreboard. (This approach is one with which all the great American Football quarterbacks have been familiar over the years – from Joe Namath to Tom Brady – namely, the timing of their team’s winning field goal (sic) with the clock ticking down to its final few seconds).
Ultimately, game management at a time like this is a question of assessing the risks and probable outcomes of the alternative actions that are available – usually when in a state of physical and mental exhaustion. I would judge that the probability of Russell succeeding with the drop goal from 15 yards in front of the posts would have been close to 100%. The probability of Racing retaining possession through multiple phases before crossing the Exeter try-line might also have been high – and Exeter did have a player in the sin-bin for this period of play – but, crucially, not as high as the alternative. There was always a risk that possession would be lost or an infringement incurred – as did finally happen after the 19th phase. A penalty awarded to Exeter took them to the security of the half-way line with their lead intact.
It might be argued that this discussion is irrelevant because another subsequent penalty was awarded to Exeter to take the final score to 31-27. I think we can discount this. The psychology of the game would have been completely different if Racing had taken the lead – for the first time in the match – with only 5 minutes to go. And the last penalty was given away in a desperate attempt by a Racing player to regain possession, which wouldn’t have been needed if his side’s noses had been in front.
A final point. Neither Miles Harrison – the lead Channel 4 commentator – nor any of his army of supporting colleagues made any reference to the drop-goal option during this decisive period of play.
The assessment of risks and probable outcomes. Where else have I been hearing about that recently?