Paul Williams kicks off the new year with a look back at the big talking points at the end of 2020
The Shaun Edwards coaching blueprint
Every coach has a unique playing style. Teams coached by the likes of Warren Gatland, Chris Boyd, Pat Lam and Rob Baxter have a blueprint so strong that it is evident in every game they play.
But there is only one coach in the world whose blueprint is so obvious that you could spot his presence at a club even if you didn’t know he was coaching there. And that is Shaun Edwards.
Edwards’s fingerprints are so evident on the current France squad that they would be permissible in a court of law. Edwards has instilled his 90% minimum tackle completion almost overnight and turned what was a lethargic defensive unit, which could easily lose a game in three minutes flat, into a team that defends as vociferously as a Republican election official.
During the autumn international period, it was France’s attack that delivered the YouTube moments and rightly so. But just because Edwards’s defensive sets don’t generate the social media likes, it doesn’t mean they aren’t as important. They’re arguably more important.
France have a very realistic chance of winning their home World Cup in 2023 and if they do, Edwards will be the reason why.
Your support really does matter
There have been very few positives from Covid, obviously. But within rugby there has been one aspect that should never be forgotten, even after we have ditched the masks and ‘two metres’ once again becomes the standard height of a second-row, not a distance by which we measure every moment of our waking lives.
As December’s results proved, particularly in Europe, crowds matter. There have been unprecedented levels of away wins during Covid rugby and it is something that supporters should really take to heart.
Your presence in the stands matters. It isn’t some empty rhetoric from the marketing team about you being the 16th player. You aren’t just another tick in the ‘buy a pint, a pie and a programme’ column. Your shouting, screaming and mere presence not only motivates your team in a scientifically provable way but it also, according to some statistics, affects refereeing decisions.
So, in a few months, when the virus has been choke-tackled, remember that support for your club is felt in every scrum, lineout, tackle and whistle blow.
Why are club teams spinning it?
The difference between elite club rugby and Test rugby is often visible. Barring only a handful of club/regional/provincial squads in the world, there is a small but clear difference in performance. But can that gap explain why at Test level, in the Autumn Nations Cup, we saw swathes of largely ‘negative’ rugby, but in the European Champions Cup we saw a level of distribution only matched by Amazon?
To watch the northern hemisphere club teams, compared to their Test teams, almost looked like two different sports. Where we saw Test teams terrified to use the ball in their own half, and even on the opposition’s 10m line, we saw club teams zipping passes to the 15m channel with the carefree abandon of Trump on Twitter.
Is it that Test-level defences are that much more organised? Are the players that much fitter and stronger? Or are Test coaches more nervous in a bubble where defeats mean job losses in a cash-strapped market?
The negativity at international level was made all the more unusual given that there was little to play for – the RWC 2023 rankings were decided – whereas in European club rugby the results had a very real impact.
It will be interesting to see if the gap in style between club and country persists in 2021.
Antoine Dupont is ‘Hall of Fame’ good
One of the joys of watching rugby over a period of decades is seeing young players emerge at the beginning of their careers. There’s a real buzz in spotting the youngsters and saying: “He/she’ll play for Wales”, “He/she’ll captain England one day”.
Then there are a small section of young players who you spot and think, ‘He/she’ll be in the Rugby Hall of Fame’. Antoine Dupont is one of those.
He looked good the first time we saw him and three years later he’s arguably the best scrum-half in the world and a contender for Player of the Year. He is one of those who moves beyond the holy trinity of a ‘triple threat’ kick, pass and run player, which is rare in itself.
Dupont is in the bracket where he looks like he can do whatever he likes, whenever he likes, and there is nothing you can do about it.
In December he scored a try for Toulouse where he stepped a forward, fended a forward, then spun the last defender into such a mess that when Dupont passed him, the defender was looking into the opposite stand.
It may be early in his career and this column has a history of jinxing players, but Dupont is one of those once-in-a-generation scrum-halves.
England dripping with backrow
The cliché would be to say that Eddie Jones has ‘an embarrassment of riches’. But it is far from embarrassing. If I was Eddie, negotiations would be well underway regarding an MTV Cribs-style show, dripping with my diamond-encrusted back-row options.
To call his back-row options golden is a drastic undersell. Tom Curry, Sam Underhill, Jack Willis, Ben Earl, Billy Vunipola, Lewis Ludlam, Sam Simmonds, Alex Dombrandt, Ted Hill, Courtney Lawes and Alfie Barbeary is a list of metal beyond precious. And that’s a list that excludes plenty of other excellent players who are so far down the depth chart list that they’re nearly in the Mariana Trench.
Sam Simmonds is the obvious outlier. Quite what he must do to get some game time for England doesn’t bear thinking about and his exclusion is even more peculiar when you consider Jones’s occasional desire for a ‘hybrid’ player. If Simmonds isn’t a forward/back hybrid, then what is?
The four-yearly debate over the British & Irish Lions back row is usually more hotly contested than an Underhill breakdown. But this time around (or in 12 months’ time), it may not be. Curry and Underhill will take some upstaging and provide Eddie with a core of back-rowers that nearly rival Sir Clive Woodward’s options – and that is praise indeed.
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