Paul Williams reflects on recent goings-on in the game
Eligibility change huge for Pacific Islands
In 50 years’ time, rugby historians will look back at November 2021 as the period that changed Pacific Islands rugby forever. The landmark change in eligibility regulations means that players who haven’t played Test rugby for three years can seek approval to play for another nation with whom they can prove a familial link.
It’s massive and arguably represents the biggest change since the game turned pro. The positive impact is enormous and just rewards for Pacific Islands nations who punch so consistently above their weight that it’s become more of a headbutt.
If you can think of a professional rugby team that hasn’t benefited from a Pacific Islands player, then you’ll be in a minority. The short-term benefits of the change are obvious. Some players who had previously shelved their Test careers, or had it shelved for them, can now play for their ‘ancestral’ nation.
The result is that Tonga, Samoa and Fiji can now select players who they’ve previously never had access to – a move that will make the next Rugby World Cup the most competitive in its history. The Pacific Islands have always been competitive in RWCs, but that will now increase substantially. If you thought that Tonga was an easy game in your group, Charles Piutau and George Moala are about to turn a banana skin into a spiky fruit salad.
Whilst the short-term gains for Pacific Island rugby are obvious, it’s the long-term gains that are key. Short-term squad improvements will lead to consistency of performance and the possibility of World Cup semi-finals and beyond. With success comes commercial opportunities, cash and sustainable investment. In 20 years’ time, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji could become top-four nations, with any reference to Tier Two as outdated as 1980s comedians.
The cynics will, of course, claim that chaos will ensue, and it could lead to a stack of current Tier One players wanting to switch allegiances. But that is highly unlikely to happen en masse. The benefits of this change far outweigh any negatives and it’s great to see World Rugby approve this process.
Congratulations to Dan Leo, all of those people involved in Pacific Islands rugby – and to World Rugby and Bill Beaumont for allowing it to happen.
Teams need players who create from slow ball
Uilisi Halaholo and Nick Tompkins played really well for Wales against Australia. Not that you’d know it from the reaction on Twitter. They missed three tackles between them (admittedly one was a big one) and many supporters began erecting digital gallows on social media.
But there is another side to the argument. A more balanced side. One which doesn’t immediately focus on the negative and throw away 79 minutes of a player’s performance for the sake of a defensive lapse.
Between them they made more than 100m with the ball, in the midfield channels, with no cheap kick returns, and also beat ten defenders. But, perhaps more importantly, the midfield combo were able to beat defenders and ‘create’ from slow possession.
Wales need that more than ever. They don’t have a Bok level of ball-carriers ready to ‘Lord of their Rings’ over the gain-line. In Halaholo and Tompkins, they have players who can step around traffic during rush hour and make things happen in the back-line even when not much is happening in the front line.
Freddie Steward is a natural
Freddie Steward came out of the womb with two England caps. It’s the only plausible explanation. He’s only 20 years old and presumably has been playing rugby for the whole of that period. His performances so far for England have been beyond dominant and probably the most impressive debut full-back season since Matt Burke.
Steward simply doesn’t drop balls. You could throw 50 babies out of the window, and he’d place them all perfectly in their cots. His positional awareness is better than the GPS in my car and his ability to hit the line is deft whilst at the same time being damaging – he carried the ball like a blindside for his try against the Boks.
Steward is one of those ‘legacy’ players who, with limited injuries and a fair wind permitting, will eventually have more caps than Ice Cube.
Not so stubborn Eddie
Eddie Jones is stubborn. That’s not exactly news. It’s part of what makes him the coach he is. But November saw a different side to Jones’s squad selections and one for which he probably hasn’t received enough praise.
His new squad is very different to the previous iteration. We finally have Marcus Smith where he belongs and his triple threat skill-set (kick, pass, run) is there for all to see. But perhaps the greatest example of Jones’s new flexibility in selection is with regards to Sam Simmonds and Alex Dombrandt.
There had been calls for both to be selected individually. In true Jones style, he did it his way by not just selecting one of them, but both. And, of course, the greatest selection of all has been the introduction of Freddie Steward.
Many have criticised Eddie Jones for his inflexibility over the past 18 months, but in November it seemed to have changed slightly.
Ireland’s rebuild is nearly complete
Ireland have had a better November than a pharmaceutical lobbyist. Beating New Zealand is one thing – one thing Welsh supporters have never seen on a colour TV – but beating them in the manner they did was quite another.
The score of 29-20 is, of course, the only real stat that matters. But when you deliver 70% territory against the All Blacks, over 80 minutes, you can be assured that Ireland’s fundamentals were fundamentally fantastic.
Tadhg Furlong delivered another performance which makes his non-nomination for World Rugby Player of the Year as unfathomable as it is annoying – that goes for all props being nominated for that award.
Garry Ringrose had his best game for Ireland in a long time and Hugo Keenan has British & Irish Lion written all over him – to the degree that he might as well have it tattooed on his head. And in Caelan Doris, they have a back-row forward who is as positionally flexible as he is talented.
Andy Farrell has now drip-fed enough youngsters into this squad so that it feels fresh, without being frightening. Ireland are in a great place for this World Cup cycle and the next.
Tomas Lavanini breaks red cards record
In November, Tomas Lavanini broke the record for the number of red cards that a Test player has received. The Argentina lock now has three. Three would be a lot if you played Test rugby until you’re 50; he’s only 28.
Some may argue that red cards are easier to come by in the modern game. And they’d be right. But they aren’t the sort of red cards that Lavanini tends to accrue. His most recent card involved a five-yard run-up into a ‘no-arms’ cleanout on a player lying on the ground.
It’s not just red cards he likes either; he’s had seven yellows in his career. Meaning he’s seen more colours in front of his eyes than Jack Kerouac. It’s a real shame because his impact is huge when he’s on the field. But far too often he isn’t.
France out ‘All Black’ the All Blacks
Even when the Test game has a cycle of teams that can compete with New Zealand, none of them beat them by playing like them. Except France that is.
On occasion South Africa, England and Ireland can overpower the All Blacks. Sometimes Australia can out ‘ball’ them, even when they can’t out maul them. But it’s only France who can really do to the All Blacks what the All Blacks do to everyone else.
The display in Paris was true triple-threat rugby, where kick/pass/run options were used as a balanced destructive strategy – there was no reliance on one predictable aspect of play.
France now arguably have the deepest depth chart in the whole of Test rugby, especially in the back-line. They are dripping with talent to the point where the past 20 years of French rugby almost seems like a bad dream.
To win a World Cup you need a squad of players whose ability to interchange results in zero drop in performance. The Boks have it in the pack and the All Blacks will undoubtedly regain that at some stage. But at the moment, it is France who have the type of squad depth that can give you the ‘bends’ and it’s great to see.
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