From high tackles to top tens, Paul Williams reflects on rugby’s big talking points over the past month
Gareth Anscombe in his best form yet
Gareth Anscombe hasn’t had the easiest of times since he arrived in Wales. The ‘is he a ten though, butt?’ question plagued his early years at Cardiff Blues – a situation familiar to most developing fly-halves in Wales. But October was Anscombe’s finest month since he arrived from the Chiefs.
Whether at ten or 15 he is making line breaks, even when the Cardiff Blues are struggling to get over the gain-line. The real mark of his confidence is that he isn’t scared to run sideways before he goes forwards.
Usually, running sideways in rugby is tantamount to having bubonic plague ‘buboes’ visible through your compression shorts, but it can also be a sign of a player who is reading the game on 4G speed when everyone else is running on 3G.
You need only look at the game’s greats, such as Christian Cullen and Brian O’Driscoll, who were always comfortable going sideways knowing that they had the ability to run the arc and then move forward.
The real beauty of Anscombe’s line breaks are that they rarely result in a rushed pass or subsequent turnover. When Anscombe breaks, his passing accuracy means that the deliveries tend to stick. And if he doesn’t have a player on his shoulder, then a precision through-kick usually follows.
He is the form player in Wales – and it’s good to see him picked to start at ten against Scotland.
High shots deserve red but not big bans at this stage
The need for rugby to reduce the height of tackles is clear and unarguable. If you do argue with the science, then you’re probably someone who also has a soft spot for the flat-earth theory.
But whilst most in the game realise that high tackles need eradicating and red cards are undoubtedly the way to do that, the post-incident punishments in this early stage of adoption should be more lenient.
Danny Cipriani’s three-week ban is a prime example. The tackle was high, the red card was legit, but the suspension was too severe.
Whilst the game is adjusting to a sizable change in tackling strategy, the red card is punishment enough. Few teams survive a red card and come out the other side with the win – Castres’ victory over Exeter being a rare example.
A red card and a one-week ban is sufficient for most of the ‘new’ high tackles we are currently seeing. After six months, when the game has evolved and players have adapted, bigger bans can then be introduced. Either way, the new laws are here to stay and rightly so.
Scotland now have two legitimate tens
Very few teams in Test rugby have two triple-threat outside-halves (kick, pass and run) at their disposal. Traditionally most Test squads have a kick-pass ten, who can dominate territory with line-kicking or feed pods of forwards, and a more creative option, who can shred the line should it be required.
Until recently it was only the All Blacks who could replace a genuine kick-pass-run outside-half with another who has exactly the same skill-set. Having players such as Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga is a luxury even for the All Blacks.
However, Scotland now also have two genuine options – Finn Russell and Adam Hastings. October saw tremendous displays from both in Europe and their domestic leagues.
The situation largely mirrors what has happened in Ireland with Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery (although under different contractual circumstances), where having both of your nation’s leading tens playing at the same club makes little sense when it comes to Test rugby. Scotland’s autumn fixtures will be worth keeping an eye on.
Watching Cheslin Kolbe equals happiness
Whilst rugby is just a sport and we shouldn’t take it too seriously, sometimes it can feel like it’s lost its ethos. For example, on deeper scrutiny Premiership Rugby’s season restructure seems to have little to do with player welfare and gives English players about the same chance of going on future British & Irish Lions tours as I have.
However, if you ever feel like the rugby walls are crumbling around you, just watch Cheslin Kolbe play. There is no one currently playing in elite rugby with feet like Kolbe. From a standing start his lower limbs look like a handheld kitchen blender on full whack.
The standard description for such a player is that they could ‘sidestep you in a phonebooth’, but Kolbe could sidestep you if you were both standing inside a 1990s Nokia. Keep it up, Cheslin, and keep us smiling.
All is not well at Toulon
Toulon have been one of the greatest rugby success stories since the game turned pro. Even when Saracens and Leinster have had squads that looked like Tier One Test teams, Toulon had squads that looked like a World XV.
Success on the field and a bottomless pot of comic book money (money to buy rugby players, not comic books) have assembled some of the greatest, if not the greatest, club rugby squads of all time. But that is no longer the case.
The money may still be there, but the success has long gone. Toulon are bottom of their Champions Cup group and second bottom in the Top 14 – they’re already 20 points behind Clermont Auvergne and it’s not even December.
Perhaps most worrying was their performance against Edinburgh. Don’t assume that this is a slight on Edinburgh – they’re arguably the most improved club in Europe this season – but the point remains that a back-line including Hugo Bonneval, Josua Tuisova, Malakai Fekitoa, Mathieu Bastareaud and Julian Savea shouldn’t have a losing margin of 26 points against anyone. Not a single member of their starting back-line in that game carried more than 50 metres.
Toulon need to sort it quickly because if rumours are to be believed, high-profile players are looking for boats out of Toulon.
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