From New Zealand’s link-up with Harlequins to the brilliance of Dan Leavy, Paul Williams reflects on the big talking points in March
New Zealand’s link-up with Harlequins is genius
We’re all used to seeing New Zealand lead the way on the pitch. Be it skill-sets or strength and conditioning, Kiwi rugby is always 18 months ahead of the rest. New Zealand’s link-up with Harlequins also proves that they’re leading the way in which southern hemisphere rugby deals with the continued threat of European money.
SANZAAR can no longer compete with the income of English and French rugby. It simply can’t. And if you can’t beat them, then history states that you must join them. Yet NZ rugby isn’t merely joining them. This is a Richie McCaw-esque administrative move, which sees New Zealand coming in through the side whilst no one is looking.
Setting up a Kiwi outpost in London is genius. Not only does it provide an off-field commercial advantage via adidas, but it also creates an on-field blueprint for the future of southern hemisphere rugby.
It doesn’t require a massive leap of the rugby imagination for Harlequins to become the All Blacks’ base abroad, where first-team All Blacks can be allowed sabbaticals. Harlequins could be a club where future Kiwi coaches are placed to ensure continuity of environment whilst their key players are away from home.
The next logical step for New Zealand is to establish a similar relationship in the Top 14 and even the Pro14. It is a strategic move, in the heart of London, so cunning and blatant that even Vladimir Putin would raise a glass of vodka in admiration.
Goalkicking still matters
‘Goalkicking rugby’ isn’t very fashionable. The days where players like Morne Steyn dictated Test results via the boot have faded away as weakly as a poorly thrown kicking tee.
In 2018, full-backs and outside-halves have to offer more than an 80% goalkicking percentage. You just need look at Beauden Barrett to realise that a 65% goalkicking percentage is acceptable if the rest of your game ranks in the top 1%.
However, the lack of emphasis on goalkicking, and particularly the reluctance to take easy shots at the posts, can still be very costly in modern rugby.
The final round of Super Rugby in March saw the Blues lose to the Sharks by 63-40. Whilst the result was hugely damaging for the Blues, particularly at home, the details of the loss point to goalkicking being the key factor. The Sharks and the Blues both scored six tries, yet the Blues were demolished because of a 100% goalkicking percentage from the Sharks – a remarkable 13 from 13.
The Scarlets’ win over La Rochelle was another further example of why attacking, try-reliant, teams still need a goalkicker. As fantastically as the Scarlets have played this season, it was the kicking of Leigh Halfpenny that built the necessary pressure when line breaks and offloads were harder to find than integrity in the Trump administration.
The days of pure goalkicking dependant rugby are thankfully gone, but their importance remains.
Welsh regions make April and May relevant again
Wales obviously follows the Gregorian calendar, but April and May could easily have been deleted from the Welsh rugby calendar in recent years. Whilst English, French and Irish supporters spend these months planning trips to finals, Welsh supporters have tended to concern themselves with what has gone wrong with their team.
When Toulon, Leinster and Saracens supporters have been busily booking hotels and restaurants in major European rugby capitals, Welsh regional supporters have been worrying about the name of their club, brand values and whether their regional boundary should be moved one inch to the north to encompass four extra houses and three extra dogs.
But as we saw in March, this year is different. Despite the vast gap in financial resources, the Scarlets and Cardiff Blues have punched well above their squad depth and commercial weight. In a competition where semi-finalists Racing 92 and Clermont were collectively able to draft Damien Chouly, Greig Laidlaw, Camille Lopez, Wesley Fofana, Dan Carter and Joe Rokocoko from the bench, the Scarlets’ progression to the semi-finals has been sensational.
The same can be said of Cardiff Blues who, in the Challenge Cup, have beaten organisations with vastly superior resources. The Scarlets and Cardiff Blues may yet have won nothing this season, but they have at least made April and May relevant again.
Is Damian McKenzie a ten?
Damian McKenzie is many things. He is arguably the most exciting attacking player in the world and, pound for pound, the best defender – only gravity works more effectively at bringing large objects to the ground.
McKenzie is genuinely a triple threat from all areas of the field. He can run, pass, kick from anywhere and with any quality of possession.
However, his error ratio is high. As much as we all love to see fly-halves adhere to the ethos of the 1970s, defences are very much of the 2010s.
When things go well, McKenzie’s 5ft 9in and 12st 11lb frame is a massive advantage; very few can cope with his 40m speed and lateral movement. But when things go wrong such a small frame is a problem, especially playing at ten, where the majority of players in his channel are back-row forwards.
It may be that McKenzie’s abilities are better suited to full-back. His defence is rock-solid and the extra space combined with a greater likelihood of encountering the smaller-framed defensive players add to his game, rather than detract.
McKenzie is glorious to watch in Super Rugby, but that space doesn’t exist in Test rugby. He needs to make a positional decision sooner rather than later.
The brilliance of third-choice Dan Leavy
There are first-choice opensides playing Test rugby whose performance levels fall well below that of Leinster’s third-choice openside, Dan Leavy. His contribution to Leinster’s win over Saracens was remarkable and one of the performances of the European season, with 79 metres carried, four clean breaks and four defenders beaten numbers than any Test centre would dream of.
But these weren’t show-pony numbers achieved by hanging around in the wide channels waiting for a sweaty, wheezing prop to plop into his channel. These were numbers achieved by proper openside play. By spotting thinly-defended rucks and identifying the lack of defensive sweepers. By running through ‘gates’ like a prize bull with opposable thumbs.
It may be that Leavy has only played due to the injuries to Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier, but that is now their problem, not his. Dan Leavy is the future of the openside play at Leinster and it is up to O’Brien and van der Flier to prove otherwise.
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