From the Lions selection policy to tough lessons for Australian teams, Paul Williams reflects on rugby’s goings-on
Lions’ selection policy is rightly short term
Everyone picked a British & Irish Lions 2021 squad. But still no one got it right.
It may be because we’ve all become so used to Test rugby’s forward-looking gaze that we’re not used to seeing a squad that is selected to do a certain job in a short period of time. With our Test teams, we’re all now accustomed to the four-year cycle, where success is based on the Rugby World Cup. It means that the age profile of a squad is key and the development of younger players is vital.
But that is not the case with the Lions. It’s about who is ready to rock and roll now, for a few months, and then it’s over. That’s where Warren Gatland caught us out. Players like Jack Conan – a military-grade ball-carrier ready to carry and tackle his guts out for an eight-week period – are a selection for now.
There is also no legacy or player relationship to worry about. There are no historical systems to have learnt or combinations to have gelled. Most of all there is no pecking order. With the Lions, the pecking doesn’t begin until they pull on that first training bib.
The short-term selection focus can be said for the inclusion of many in the squad. Gatland hasn’t needed to pick a team who can cope with multiple playing styles, as you would need to in a tournament like the World Cup or Six Nations; he is picking a team to beat a specific opposition, over a specific period.
If we have learnt one thing, it is never to second guess Gatland. Usually, he is right.
Scrum is where the Lions series will be won
If you’ve been watching the South African teams in the Rainbow Cup, you’ll be aware that any talk of who is playing in the back-line for the Lions is largely pointless. And worrying about the back-row selection is also probably a waste of Twitter characters. Just focus on the tight five. In all likelihood, just the front three. The scrum is where it will be won.
South African rugby has some amazing young backs in Aphelele Fassi and the like, rock-solid senior players in Damian de Allende and a range of back-row forwards who can mine the rocks, then sculpt them. But it is all generated from dominant set-piece and, in particular, the scrum.
Whilst we’re all debating which ball-handling/sidestepping loosehead will get the nod for the Lions, don’t be surprised at all if Andrew Porter starts the first Test with Tadhg Furlong. Gaining parity at the scrum in the first Test will be the first box waiting to be ticked on Gatland’s spreadsheet. If the Lions can’t handle the Boks at the scrum, handling in the backs will be moot.
Australia have gone to big school
Remember when you were at primary school and you felt safe with your small gang of friends, you knew the ropes and everything seemed cool. Then you went to big school, saw some of the bigger kids, from other schools, and immediately craved the warm embrace of your mother. Well, that has happened to the Australian teams in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.
After a reasonably competitive opening weekend of games, where there were admittedly five loses for the Australian teams, things have gotten worse. The idiot author of this column initially said the gap wasn’t that big; now, after a few weeks of contemplation, the gap looks big enough to store Boris Johnson’s takeaway containers. Until the Reds beat the Chiefs, the Australian teams hadn’t won a game.
However, the Australian teams’ suffering shouldn’t bring any pleasure from supporters around the world. Do you really think your country’s four top teams would fare much better playing against the best rugby in the world?
In many ways New Zealand rugby has evolved even faster during Covid than at any time before. For 12 months they had done nothing but play each other and inadvertently created rugby’s Galapagos Islands, where evolution has been specific and rapid.
Australian rugby has a stack of fantastic young players coming through, and the next five years of development looks promising in many positions. But for the time being, the Kiwis are evolving faster than ever.
Tackle technique is no longer an academic subject
Up until this season tackle technique was a largely academic subject. You were taught it when you were young, then you’d use it as and when you needed to as an adult.
Even the discussion in elite rugby has tended to be largely academic over the past decade. Good tackle technique has been lauded, but if you didn’t have it, you could still get by with having your head on the wrong side, or tackling too high on occasions, but without it really affecting your career – Owen Farrell being an example of the latter.
But things have changed now. Tackle technique isn’t something that we just talk about; it now loses games. To the point where a red card in a European Champions Cup final means that you have no chance.
As we saw with La Rochelle and Toulouse, Levani Botia’s tackle ended the game for La Rochelle and in a way that could and should have been prevented. It wasn’t an accidental sliding up of the contact point or a case of the player dipping – it was 1990s in its approach.
Players who now have problems with their tackling technique are no longer something to be discussed quietly after the game, it is something that needs to be addressed during selection. If you’ve got players who can’t or won’t get low enough, your chances of winning are low. The game has changed and the adaptation needs speeding up.
Scott Williams released by the Ospreys
May saw Scott Williams released by the Ospreys. And whilst it is entirely understandable given his injury record, particularly during Covid and the associated budget implications, it makes you realise how fragile an existence being a pro rugby player is.
When fit, Williams was one of the best players in Wales and the rightful successor to Jamie Roberts in midfield. But a dreadful run of injuries has reduced the once headliner to a footnote on a player release statement.
It’s a cruel, but very realistic insight into professional sport and all that it brings. Williams has already had an amazing career, as his 58 caps for Wales confirm, but let’s hope that it doesn’t end there. He’s only 30 and, injuries allowing, would still be a fantastic addition to any squad.
Coaching is a combination that is often overlooked
When we discuss combinations in rugby, we tend to focus on the centres, the back row or the nine-ten axis. Rarely do we think of coaching set-ups a combination in the same way we do players. But when you see the turnaround at Harlequins it makes you realise that the coaching combo may be the most important in the game.
In a few months Harlequins have gone from an eye-coverer to an eye-opener. They’ve made the final four in the Gallagher Premiership and are playing some of the most expansive rugby in the league. Marcus Smith is the top point-scorer in the league and Joe Marchant and Alex Dombrandt are second and third in the league for clean breaks.
Perhaps the most interesting stat is that Danny Care, Dombrandt and Smith are second, third and fourth respectively in the league for try-scoring. Having your eight, nine and ten in the top try-scoring charts means you’re playing attacking rugby at a level that few others are.
But what really matters is that despite many of their players dominating the league, they are largely the same players who have been there for the past few seasons. The one thing that has changed is the coaching structure.
It’s great to see Quins at the business end, once again.
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