From New Zealand’s men at No 10 to Eddie Jones’s turnover stats, Paul Williams reflects on all the happenings in rugby this August
All Blacks go old school with fly-halves
When we consider the All Blacks and their current domination of the game, we tend to focus on how they’re moving the game forward. But, with their current fly-half choices, New Zealand have taken a wonderful step back to amateur rugby.
In the 1970s and 1980s, fast outside-halves were vital. Defensive systems, and back-row play in particular, were nowhere near as refined as they are today. Space in the ten channel meant that outside-halves could make breaks and needed the pace to finish them.
That all changed when the game went pro. The ten channel became the most claustrophobic space on the field and the era of the kicking/passing ten began.
The same can’t be said of the current All Blacks. Beauden Barrett, Damian McKenzie and Richie Mo’unga are a step back to the old school. And by step, I mean a step off both feet, probably another two steps, followed by a 40m sprint under the posts.
The current New Zealand outside-halves have the skill-set of a ten combined with the speed of a Test wing. This means that all their potential outside-halves can become one-man counter-attacks.
Related: Beauden Barrett analysed
When other Test teams win a turnover, they need to make a minimum of one pass, but often three, from their ten to reach a player who can finish over 40 metres. The All Blacks don’t.
Barrett’s four tries against the Wallabies were astounding and have once again redefined what we expect from a Test-level outside-half. The Kiwis have moved the game forward, by going backwards – and it’s mesmerising to watch.
Sam Warburton goes out like a rock star
Sam Warburton’s retirement at 29 years old has given him the ultimate rock-star exit. For Warburton, there will be no sitting on the bench having been overtaken by a younger, better model. There will be no unfortunate camera angle that reveals a growing bald spot. There will be no reference to the vintage Warburton, when the fizz has disappeared and the praise has soured.
Warburton went out as the Test-match beast that he was. Half-man, half-landmine, such was his explosiveness in the tackle and jackal.
Many have questioned his ability to carry the ball and whether it should exclude him from being considered a true great. But they’re all wrong. Warburton played and mastered the system that Warren Gatland’s rugby required.
With predictable straight carries from the inside backs, Warburton had to specialise in being a fetcher. When he played at six, with the burden of the tackle and jackal slightly removed, his carrying and distribution was the equal of many.
With a World Cup win highly unlikely, there was nothing left for him to realistically gain in his career, that wouldn’t be offset by losses to his health. A spectacular playing career is behind him, and an equally rewarding media career awaits. He deserves it all.
Australia and South Africa struggling with the basics
August saw gushing praise for the All Blacks – and rightly so. But while Australia and South Africa have improved from last season, their desire to match the All Blacks in line breaks and offloads isn’t where the problem lies.
So far in the Rugby Championship, the Springboks have beaten 61 defenders and made 35 clean breaks. The Wallabies have made 30 clean breaks and beaten 44 defenders. Those numbers indicate that attacking rugby is being attempted and executed. But those numbers also belie the huge failings in the basics for both teams.
During the first Bledisloe Cup Test, the Wallabies had a lineout completion of 38% – five from 13. Away in Argentina, the Springboks had a defensive completion of 64% – just 58 from 90.
The problem for both teams isn’t that the All Blacks wouldn’t deliver such low numbers; neither would Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland nor France. These are meltdowns in the game’s fundamentals that you simply can’t do in Test rugby. Both are making the basics look complicated and this needs to change.
Streaming has brought pre-season to life
For many supporters, pre-season is the most exciting part of rugby. A first glimpse of new signings, the reveal of a new kit and a chance to get truly involved with the team before the more casual fans hop on the bus.
However, pre-season rugby has historically been like watching something with your retinas detached. You can tell that something is happening, but you can’t see it properly.
Most pre-season games are played many miles from the home club and are often part of a small tour, where travel limitations and ticketing practicalities make the games hard to watch. The streaming of pre-season games has changed that – and the impact could be radical.
Football embraced the pre-season game more than 20 years ago, and many tours are televised or offered as a live stream. It is potentially a new revenue stream for rugby, where live online feeds could generate much needed cash.
For example, 2,000 people watching online at £5 per person is an easy £10,000 and whilst that figure may seem small, it’s means a great deal for many clubs.
Rugby has made huge strides in marketing, particularly social media, over the past 24 months, and streaming can be the next step forward. The streaming of some training sessions will hopefully be the next move.
Eddie Jones has a problem with turnovers
England’s problem at openside has lasted more than a decade. And with just 12 months until the World Cup, it remains unsolved. But whilst the ability to win turnovers on the deck remains a problem, the concession of turnovers in the back-room staff remains Eddie Jones’s biggest issue.
August saw head of sports science Dean Benton follow Paul Gustard, Paul Frawley and Gary Lester in leaving the England set-up. Jones’s retention of staff makes Donald Trump look like employer of the year.
It is a remarkable state for a Tier One nation to find itself in so near to the global showpiece. Rugby’s long timelines don’t do England’s coaching turnover justice. Twelve months seems like an eternity in any other business, but it simply isn’t in rugby. This is the equivalent of a normal business having the biggest pitch in its history, then losing four of the pitch team the day before the big meeting.
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