We're a month into 2018 and Paul Williams pinpoints what we've learnt in the year so far, from scrums to Super Rugby and full-backs to flawed cups
You can still have a non-linear career in rugby union
Since rugby has turned professional, careers have become very linear. Academies and a vast array of age-grade rugby have meant a steady progression through the ranks is often the only way to progress. Academy placement is followed by U20 representation and next it’s senior club rugby then Test rugby. The effectiveness of the professional process usually mean the weaker players are sifted out early on, meaning there are few bolters or surprise packages for supporters to discover at senior level.
But the rise of Tadhg Beirne is disproving this theory. And he is not alone. Look at another Scarlet in Hadleigh Parkes. Neither has taken the fluid route to success. Parkes was considered, very unfairly, a journeyman pro – if he is a journeyman then he must rank alongside Marco Polo and Vasco Da Gama such has been his ability to help the Scarlets discover new lands; Champions Cup quarter-finals are rare possessions indeed in Wales. Beirne’s form since arriving from Ireland has been nothing short of remarkable. Having been rejected by Leinster, he has arguably been the best player in Europe this season.
While professional rugby will continue to produce the golden children who are predisposed to getting 100 caps for their country before the egg has fused in their mother’s womb, such as Marcus Smith, there is still room for the late developer and those who catch a lucky break. And long may it continue, the game would be a very sterile environment without it.
The scrum’s importance goes beyond the obvious
January saw Eddie Jones reiterate the importance of the scrum. As he said, without it the game would become “rugby league with lineouts”. But the importance of the scrum far exceeds its primary purpose. Without a competitive scrum, the physical make-up of a team would be vastly different and the implications far reaching.
Less focus on the scrum means less need for 19st players who wouldn’t look out of place as extras in Lord of the Rings. In the front row, 19st props are obviously vital but they can be a liability in the defensive line, especially after ten-plus phases. A move away from an authentic scrum would lead to front-row forwards replicating the build of back-row forwards, making the already nano-defensive gaps even smaller.
Having extra, lighter forwards would also have an impact on lineout success, where the ability to potentially lift five jumpers would undoubtedly see the quality of lineout ball drop. We all get annoyed with constant scrum resets and unfathomable scrum penalties, but be careful what you wish for. Without scrums, rugby union would be like watching two pieces of flesh sandpaper rubbing against each other for 80 minutes.
The ‘old guard’ full-backs need to step aside
It’s never easy criticising once fantastic Test players. Leigh Halfpenny, Rob Kearney and Mike Brown have had tremendous international careers and their distinguished club careers will undoubtedly continue. But eventually even the timeless run out of minutes. This year’s Six Nations could be the year in which that finally happens.
All things being equal, January has proved that February needs to be the month where the likes of Jordan Larmour, a fit Liam Williams and Anthony Watson need to wear the No 15 shirts for their countries. To their credit, the wonderfully expansive Scotland were way ahead of the curve by selecting Stuart Hogg.
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It’s not merely a debate about age. Kearney, Brown and Halfpenny excelled in an age where it was easier to win games when you didn’t have the ball, such was the ease with which you could win penalties at the breakdown. The kick-chase game from 2009-2015 favoured those who were strong in the air and missed few tackles, over those who stepped and broke lines. But that style of full-back went out of fashion two seasons ago, particularly in the southern hemisphere, and now it is time that the north caught up.
The Anglo-Welsh Cup needs a rethink
January yet again saw the Anglo-Welsh Cup cough up some unsightly mismatches. For a competition that is supposed to be about developing young talent, there are some players being selected with more caps than Jay-Z. On occasion, it has looked like watching a competitive dad have a kickabout with his toddler, only to take it too seriously and end up tackling his kid into the tree swing.
The Gloucester team that faced the Ospreys featured Henry Trinder, Richard Hibbard, Ed Slater and Ben Morgan, while the Ospreys included four players I had never seen before, and I watch an OCD level of rugby.
It may be that the English teams simply have deeper squads filled with more senior players and that their second-string teams are stronger. Or that the Premiership teams are using it to keep their squads warm during international breaks in a league where relegation means that the end of the season is just as important as the beginning – not a situation that prevails in the Pro14.
Either way the competition needs reform. An age limit on the players selected seems logical. But perhaps a more unusual measure of success could come from giving additional rewards to those clubs who manage to transition younger players who feature in the competition, into their long-term first-team squads.
Rugby needs Super Rugby
January once again saw the pull of European money impact on Super Rugby. Highlanders fly-half Lima Sopoaga, Charlie Ngatai, the Chiefs centre, and Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd are the latest to sign contracts in the northern hemisphere. It is a difficult situation. Who can blame players for wanting to take care of their families? But the plundering of Super Rugby could have more far-ranging consequences than merely draining other teams of talent.
The plundering of a poorer professional team, in any sport, by a richer professional team is nothing new and arguably progresses the commercial interests of the game. But Super Rugby isn’t just another league; it’s almost a subsection of a rugby, nearly a different sport. It is snowboarding, to the northern hemisphere’s ‘downhill’. It’s not as if those former Super Rugby players are even allowed to continue to play that style in the northern hemisphere – they aren’t. Barring a few teams, the relegation and commercial pressures of the Top 14 and Premiership aren’t the ideal conditions for Super-style rugby.
Many don’t share the love for Super Rugby. But for others it is a break from the attritional rugby played up north and a heads-up as to what form New Zealand rugby, in particular, is about to morph into next. The aesthetic of the global game will suffer should Super Rugby be stripped to its bones.