From wings to Wasps, Paul Williams casts his eye over rugby’s recent goings-on
The rise of Louis Rees-Zammit
‘Damn it, Zammit’ may not be the actual words used by the opposition’s back three, supporters and coaching staff, but they echo the sentiment expressed so far.
The impact that Louis Rees-Zammit has had on the Gallagher Premiership would have been massive even if he was a 27-year-old, world conquering Fijian; to do it as an 18-year-old on a development contract is ludicrous.
With enough gas for Gloucester to consider mining him as an additional income stream, he has what all head coaches require from a wing – raw pace. Whilst the role of a modern wing has become far more kick-chase/defence-based in recent years, speed remains the primary function of a wing.
Some may say that we’ve seen this all before in the Premiership. Players like Christian Wade had the legs, but maybe not the shoulders to succeed at the very top level, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with the Gloucester wing. He seems comfortable defensively and his positioning is promising for such a young player.
Social media has been awash with English pundits and supporters trying to claim Rees-Zammit as their own. But as he has publicly declared, he is Welsh. Over to you, Mr Pivac.
A new approach to away games in Europe
Away wins in Europe, especially the Champions Cup, are rare. They always have been. The reality is that a bonus point (BP) is the goal from the outset. But with rugby becoming ever more professional, and ruthless, we could see a new approach to away games in Europe.
As we saw in December, some teams, the Ospreys being one, managed to get a four-try BP in a largely one-sided game. It begs the question, is there any point in approaching away games defensively, when outright attack from all areas can secure you four tries?
Chasing a four-try BP from the kick-off could have a big impact on not only tactics but selection. Why pick a defensively-focused back three when you can select finishers? All of a sudden, the defensively weak but offensively strong outside-half becomes the starting ten and the box-kicking nine is no longer the star of the show.
Rugby changes quickly and we could well see this trend develop. Worth keeping an eye on.
Wasps win big
With Wasps looking like an insect that has somehow survived through to early winter, they needed a win. They looked set for the type of post-Christmas run-in that directors of rugby dread – the type that can get a bit ‘sacky’.
That was until their win over Bristol, in Bristol. It was a fantastic fixture and one of the games of the month. With Malakai Fekitoa rediscovering early career form and shredding the line like the 50-cap All Black he could have been, Wasps cut the Bears’ midfield to pieces – 100m carried, with three clean breaks and six defenders beaten are big numbers for a centre.
Add to that Nizaam Carr’s stunning try, in which the usually immaculate Charles Piutau undid his previous defensive efforts, and Wasps delivered a victory that could be the difference between playing in the Premiership or the Championship next season.
Is the Top 14 losing its sheen for Welsh players?
The festive period saw confirmation that Rhys Webb will return to the Ospreys – a Christmas present that their supporters dearly needed. It is a significant move for Welsh rugby. Not only does it see one of Wales’ best players return to regional rugby, but it marks the reversing of a trend of Welsh players going to France’s Top 14.
In truth, Webb has had a mixed time in Toulon. Injury, and Baptiste Serin, meant that Webb hasn’t had it all his own way, but he has become favourite of Toulon supporters.
Webb isn’t alone in finding mixed fortunes in France; in fact, he is one of the positive examples. Other than Lee Byrne, Stephen Jones and Gareth Thomas, almost everyone else struggled to adapt in one way or another – even players as good as Gethin Jenkins, Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate would consider their trip to France as a ‘learning experience’.
Perhaps the final nail in the coffin for Welsh players in France is the lack of Top 14 television coverage in the UK now. Thus, players who move to France become invisible to the Welsh public and selectors very quickly. Plenty of players will still choose to leave Wales, but the Top 14 is no longer the top destination.
Exeter Chiefs grow in confidence
Exeter Chiefs are a well-run club. Arguably the best in the world game. It has allowed them to grow organically from something local, to something global.
With a recruitment policy that only acquires players with a robust work ethic, they’ve built a squad and culture that is the envy of most and places them as many supporters’ second favourite team. Yet for all their positives, they have often been overshadowed by the glitz of the London clubs.
However, as we saw in December, that is changing as Exeter grow in confidence on and off the field. Their performance against Saracens over the festive period was massive and straight from page one of the Exeter playbook – tackle and carry until you puke.
The fixture was of course about more than just rugby. There was a back-room element to this game that spilt onto the pitch and sent us flying back to 1990s rugby, where festive derbies often saw players being hurled into the advertising hoardings.
Rob Baxter’s post-match comments were as aggressive as his teams defensive-line and were a welcome sign for those who have stood fast on their criticism of salary cap breaches. Add to that the news that Jonny Gray may soon be joining them, a player who epitomises the Exeter way, and Chiefs are looking like Premiership leaders both on and off the field.
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