The most revered beard in northern hemisphere rugby was in business at Welford Road on Friday evening. Just before the Six Nations, Jake Ball was outstanding for the Scarlets against Leicester. We analyse his all-action effort.
Every now and then, amid the high-and-tight haircuts, base-layers and white boots, you come across a player who would look right at home on a 13th century battlefield. Very occasionally, they pop up in the backline – think Tana Umaga in recent times.
More often though, it is forwards that take on this primeval aura. Remember how gnarled John Hayes poured raw emotion into every Ireland anthem? Who could forget a simmering Sebastien Chabal staring down the haka in 2007, hair billowing behind him?
Jake Ball, the mightily-bearded Scarlets lock, is undoubtedly a member of this cult hero club. Resembling an enraged Viking warlord wrapped in a cloak of steam, he marauded around a muddy Welford Road magnificently on Friday evening. Though his injury-ravaged region were overpowered and succumbed to a 40-23 loss, the lock was superb.
It will be two days short of a year since Ball’s Test debut when England head to the Millennium Stadium for a firecracker to open the Six Nations on 6 February. The 23-year-old has developed brilliantly in that time. He should be alongside Alun Wyn Jones at the white-hot epicentre of the Cardiff cauldron.
A seam-up bowler good enough for the Western Australia youth set-up, Ball could easily have been lost to rugby entirely. Warren Gatland should feel lucky he headed back to Wales in 2012. Here is a run-down of his display against Leicester Tigers.
1:04 – Search and destroy
Decision-making at the breakdown is a huge part of any forward’s job description, especially at the top level of the modern game where scavengers are so proficient at pilfering and slowing down ruck ball.
Julian Salvi is one of the best exponents of the ‘jackal’ – clamping onto a tackled player – on the planet. The Australian street-fighter has been integral to so many Tigers wins. The Scarlets would have identified as much. Track Ball on this early attack:
Salvi only twitches in anticipation of a steal and is smashed to the ground. It is dubious whether the cleared-out player is attached to the ruck, but referee Pascal Gauzere is on the spot and sees no infringement worth whistling.
In any case, watch how far Ball has come to make the play, shown by the screenshot circling both Ball (red) and Salvi (green):
The robust clear-out technique, which puts his rival on the floor and therefore out of the game, is also worth another look:
1:34 – Brawn against Burns
A six foot six, 19-stone frame and sound technique mean Ball is an intimidating figure on the gain-line. This tackle – one of 11 he made during the game – drives Freddie Burns backwards:
3:00 – Set-piece speed
The best strategy for the Scarlets against the cohesive, heavy Leicester pack was to maintain a high tempo. Here, with decent field position, a swift off-the-top move directed by jumper Ball sends Scott Williams into midfield. It was a move that eventually resulted in three points for the visitors:
5:30 – Restart uncertainty
The only slight blemish on a fine performance for Ball were a couple of problems in the face of Tom Croft‘s kick-chase. As this instance shows, he was perhaps hindered by some lackadaisical lifting from youngsters Rob Evans and Ryan Elias:
However, on closer inspection it is possible to see that Ball tried to use an old-fashioned basket technique of catching, rather than going with his hands above his head:
That small error in judgment allows Croft to steal ahead. Certainly, it is an area that England’s analysts will have clocked.
25:10 – Composure on the counter
It will probably not be that surprising given Ball’s Antipodean upbringing, but he is also an exceptional handler. Receiving the ball in space here, he draws in two Tigers defenders before setting away wing Hadleigh Parkes and charging off in support to hit the ensuing ruck and force a penalty:
A glance at the moment Ball catches Aled Davies‘ pass is telling. The lock holds it in two hands, interesting both Jordan Crane in front of him and Adam Thompstone further wide, before distributing flawlessly:
26:00-33.20 – Problem solving
As previously mentioned, Scarlets hooker Elias was rather inexperienced. He is clearly talented, but you cannot expect to play mistake-free rugby at senior level just nine days after his 20th birthday.
As such, the Wayne Pivac‘s men had a few problems after earning a succession of lineouts close to the Tigers line. First, this one was overthrown:
Then, Geoff Parling got up to nick this one:
On both of these attempts, a throw to the middle of the lineout is called. The intended targets are Ball and George Earle. However, on their third attempt – and with Tigers second-row Graham Kitchener in the sin bin – a different approach is called for. Elias hits the front and Scarlets find success:
Ball’s role here is best seen from a reverse angle. Initially, he switches from jumper to lifter:
As the drive comes on and Tigers splinter, he then works around to hit the maul from the back foot and add irresistible impetus:
38:00 – Subtle spoiling
Gauzere showed very little tolerance all night for tacklers failing to roll away from the contact area. Here, Ball is very clever. Aiding with the challenge on Seremaia Bai, he then goes to contest before twisting out of the ruck after losing balance.
However, while it looks as though Ball is appeasing the referee, he comes towards Leicester scrum-half Ben Youngs, therefore slowing down Tigers’ attack considerably. He is not penalised, meaning it is an intelligent intervention:
54:45 – On the charge
Into the second half now, and Leicester’s superior ballast up front has started to show. Even so, Ball’s energy levels remain high. This break was great to watch, coming about from some expert disruption form John Barclay and a lovely Elias offload:
Powering away from both Youngs brothers and Burns is strikingly athletic, but Ball then aims a majestic offload to find Scott Williams through a sea of scrambling defenders while turtled on his back to keep the attack alive – a superb piece of skill:
59:50 – Trundling on
Ball’s influence did not wane. On the hour mark, he linked up with Rhys Priestland for this carry to get in behind the hosts:
A roll on the ground means Tom Youngs cannot slow the phase-play down and Harry Robinson goes over in the right-hand corner from the very next phase.
74:52 – Forceful ’til the last
A heavy surface made for tired legs in the dying embers of this clash. Even so, Ball refused to relent. Watch how Leicester replacement Matt Smith, a hugely underrated club stalwart and a spiky carrier, looks to pick a gap in the Scarlets line:
Quickly, Ball makes up ground to his left and envelops his opponent, forcing a turnover.
Whatever the result, it is nice for an individual to end any match on a positive. Ball saturated his shift with contributions from start to finish. Despite defeat, Gatland will surely have inked his name into his Six Nations plans.