Paul Williams delivers his monthly round-up of goings-on in the oval-ball game

Bristol defy rugby convention

During the tailend of 2020, and the opening few weeks of 2021, box-kicking has had fewer positive headlines than a Covid denier. Admittedly, the Autumn Nations Cup matches were a little box-kick heavy and some teams have understandingly become very wary of conceding possession between the ten-metre lines.

It may be that Covid, and the associated increase in financial pressure, has placed yet another animal trap under coaches, but it is a trap that Pat Lam’s Bears have refused to step in.

Bristol are on top of the Gallagher Premiership after seven games and have defied the prevailing logic that teams are safer playing without the ball. Lam’s team have achieved this by not only topping the metres gained charts but also the passes given – two performance indicators which are indicative of attacking rugby.

Their performance against Bath was special. They carried for 793m – that’s almost three times the number of metres you’d expect from a typical ‘attacking’ team and four times the amount carried by a typical ‘kicking’ team.

When watching Bristol, it is easy to think that their style is best summed up by the exceptional Semi Radradra – his treatment of Bath’s defenders not only beat them in a rugby sense but also seemed to damage their souls.

However, it’s players like John Afoa who really show Bristol’s ethos of 15-man rugby – his ‘pull back’ passes in the pod are key to creating the space for the likes of Radradra.

It may well be that Exeter’s more robust approach wins out when the season is completed, and Newcastle Falcons’ incredible start further proves that a simple set-piece strategy is effective. But for the wide boys and wide girls out there, Bristol – and Wasps – are proving that playing to the very edge of the field can be successful too.

Advantage England

England don’t really need any more advantages in the upcoming Six Nations. Their squad is so deep that you contravene fracking laws just by looking at their back-three options. And their pack is industrial to the point that it would negate the use of machinery should you decide to continue with that fracking business.

However, the two-week gap presented by the absence of European fixtures could arguably be the difference between them and the rest. Two weeks of calm, no travel and limited contact during one of the most unusual seasons that professional rugby has ever seen, will be a massive boost.

The decision to take a two-week break, and not fill that gap with league fixtures, was met with a mixed response, which was weird given the need to maintain player welfare this season above all. But either way, England will now be entering one of the most unplannable Six Nations ever played, in a thoroughly well-planned manner. Eddie Jones will be pleased.

Paul Gustard uses a different channel

As one of the premium defensive coaches in the elite game, Paul Gustard knows his way around the defensive channels. But this week he chose a channel for attack. That channel was LinkedIn and his attack was so effective that it looked like it had been devised by Lee Blackett and his chums.

It all revolved around his appointment in Benetton’s coaching team following his departure as Harlequins’ head of rugby just a few days earlier.

Gustard set up the play beautifully, by saying that he was looking forward to being part of a group at Benetton. Then came the subtle line of Benetton having a “a clear vision”. Then, bang, came the change of angle stating that Benetton’s group has “a deep level of trust” and a “dynamic environment” driven towards high goals.

It may be one of the most perfectly executed attacks of the season, especially from a defence coach.

Rugby isn’t just a young man’s game

It’s very easy to think that a rugby player’s career is over when they hit 30. Back in the Eighties, when strength and conditioning meant switching to filtered cigarettes, many a career was over by the time the dial tipped past 29.

Even in recent years, unless you were playing in the tight five where speed is viewed as optional, a player in their early 30s was more likely to be offered a blanket for their legs, than a new deal. But that is no longer the case, as we have seen this season in the Guinness Pro14.

Kicking on: Stephen Myler has impressed for the Ospreys (Sportsfile/Getty Images)

When Stephen Myler, Sione Kalamafoni and Jamie Roberts signed for their respective regions, the reaction was muted. Yet Myler, at 36, has given the Ospreys a solidity of tactical kicking that they haven’t had since Dan Biggar left and is putting the team into positions where their lineout maul can work effectively and the impressive young Keiran Williams can perfect his Scott Gibbs impression.

Kalamafoni, 32, has given the Scarlets the type of ball-carrying that they haven’t had since Ben Morgan departed and 34-year-old Roberts is currently performing at a level where he is undoubtedly on the national team’s radar – whether they choose to use that radar or not.

Covid creates different pressures

Covid has presented professional rugby with the most difficult 12 months in its existence. Even when things are at their best, rugby is short of money and the infighting between governing bodies and clubs, in all leagues, makes it look like cockfighting has never been outlawed.

However, alongside the financial pressures and logistical nightmares, January has seen a far more human problem develop in that some players are choosing not to play in the Six Nations due to family and personal reasons.

Both Joe Marler and Matteo Minozzi have ruled themselves out of the tournament. The reaction to their decision has marked a major shift in response.

Test rugby has always been the pinnacle of the game and something that tended to be placed above all else in a player’s life; a situation where it was commonplace for players to miss the birth of their children in order to play, which has always felt like an unusual thing to do.

Thankfully, times seem to have changed. It is now rightly acceptable for players to put their life and the life of their family first.

Rugby has been forced to adapt over the past 12 months, some things good, some things bad. But hopefully allowing players to put their lives before that of the national team will continue to be seen as a logical and acceptable decision.

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