From Laumape to lessons in creativity and Carbery to Cardiff Blues, Paul Williams has the rugby happenings of the past month covered
Ngani Laumape can fill hole left by Sonny Bill Williams
There was a time when the All Blacks couldn’t do without Sonny Bill Williams. With the absence of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, SBW became the fulcrum in the centre. His ability to crash the line and offload fused the roles of Nonu and Smith into one position and allowed the All Blacks to experiment with younger centres outside.
Those performances are long gone from the injured SBW. However, the emergence of Ngani Laumape will have calmed many fears in Kiwi rugby.
Laumape had a very successful ’carrying’ season for the Hurricanes in 2016-17, where his unorthodox 5ft 7in and 16st frame saw many a defender’s ribcage compress. But the crash-ball Laumape is so last year. This year, whilst defenders set their legs, and hope that their internal organs don’t move too much in the impact, Laumape has been sending miss-two passes into the wider channels – making narrow defences looks incredibly naive.
Laumape may not be the long-term owner of the All Blacks’ No 12 shirt, but he could certainly be there for the World Cup – and he will cause France massive problems in June.
Barbarians prove that individual talent still matters
England versus the Barbarians was, from the outset, intended to be about creativity and individual talent. The selection of Danny Cipriani looked like a rare change in selectional stance from Eddie Jones, a coach who is becoming so rigid that he makes the Angel of the North look like a yoga master.
However, the lesson in creativity and individual talent came not from Cipriani, but from the Barbarians. It was an immaculate display of individual ability and a real kick in the windpipe for a sport where, particularly at Test level, stability of defensive and attacking systems has superseded individual ability.
At it’s most basic it proved that individual talent really matters when time in camp, strength and conditioning, and consistency of selection are absent. To see 23 Barbarians players, who would have spent way more time playing drinking games than analysing England games, reduce a team to a defensive completion of 67% was incredible. To stick nine tries on England and 63 points on the Twickenham scoreboard is worthy of its own documentary on Netflix.
It was, of course, a weakened England team, playing in a fixture that meant little to the World Cup cycle, but to watch 23 Barbarians, relying on their talent rather than PowerPoint rugby, was as big a victory as the winning margin itself.
Cardiff Blues deserve the backslaps
Leinster will rightly take the European plaudits this season. Their rugby was stunning in every aspect. And whilst in Wales, the Scarlets will arguably receive the greater plaudits for reaching the Champions Cup semi-final and Guinness Pro14 final, it is the Cardiff Blues that deserve the rigorous slaps on the back.
In the soap opera of Welsh rugby, Cardiff Blues have been EastEnders. Very few smiles punctuated by public feuds, financial problems and unsightly divorces. But despite this, the Cardiff Blues won the Challenge Cup.
It was a remarkable victory given the pre-Christmas situation, where Danny Wilson had announced he was leaving and the news that the club may once again have to move from Cardiff Arms Park.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of their achievement is that it involved zero additional cash – it couldn’t, as the performance improvements all took place mid-season. Cardiff Blues’ turnaround was entirely down to attitude and endeavour, and it has made them Wales’ second region – as opposed to having to scrap it out with the Dragons to be the third or fourth.
Cardiff Blues finally have a squad – and hopefully a coaching staff – who are looking to thrive rather than escape. And that is fantastic for Welsh rugby.
Test rugby remains the pinnacle – that’s why Joey Carbery moved
May saw Joey Carbery sign for Munster and with it the understandable lobbing of Irish faeces onto the social-media fan. The fallout is understandable.
If you’re a Leinster fan, you’ve just lost one of the best next-generation outside-halves in Europe and handed over an asset to your arch enemy. And that’s why Test rugby must, in all countries, remain the pinnacle of rugby.
Club/regional/provincial rugby can be bought. Success at that level is fleeting and is often the direct result of money. You need only look at Stade Francais’ recent shopping spree to see how next season’s pending success is a matter of popping a straw deep into a well full of financial juice – which is, by the way, far easier than popping an actual straw into a Capri-Sun.
Test rugby success, while being heavily influenced by cash long-term, cannot be bought directly. It is impossible to alter the three-year win rate of a Test team with money alone, whereas that can be easily achieved in the club game.
And that’s why the current Irish model is proving so successful. The success of the provinces is secondary to the Test team, yet their top provinces remain the benchmark in European rugby.
Creative ‘player announcements’ should be applauded
Creative player announcements are unfamiliar territory for rugby. Many have responded to the conceptual unveiling of players on social media in the same manner that Sir Clive Woodward responded to the Barbarians’ performance against England. But these shifts in rugby marketing should be applauded, not ridiculed.
The Ospreys’ unveiling of George North was executed using a parody of a WhatsApp chat, whereby the region’s players added George North to the group. It was a clever, affordable use of social media, which certainly cut through what can be a very conservative creative space. Yet the response was as positive as Mourad Boudjellal’s managerial feedback.
Rugby finds itself in a strange predicament when it comes to advertising and creative thinking. On one hand we have the constant criticism of the ‘blazers’ and their traditional, constrictive hold on the game. Yet when someone rips off the blazer and reveals a funky T-shirt, the rugby public baulks and does a little sick in its mouth.
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Rugby is moving forward on the pitch, let’s hope it can off the pitch too.
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