Paul Williams delivers his monthly musings on the major happenings in the game
Ardie Savea is the genuine hybrid
Hybrid has become a dirty word in rugby. It’s synonymous with Eddie Jones’s theoretical musings that in the future wings may eventually play ten minutes at lock, three at tighthead and then go to full-back for the final 20 minutes before finally reverting back to being an amphibian and re-entering the water.
Being a hybrid is seen as a bonus in club rugby, where positional fluidity is key for a squad to thrive over the season, but it still has a whiff of career stagnation if you’re looking to excel at Test level.
One player who this does not apply to is Ardie Savea. Whether he is playing at six, seven or eight, you are getting Ardie Savea. Full fat, max caffeine, deep fried, covered in cream and sprinkled with angel dust Ardie Savea.
His performance for New Zealand against the Pumas at the end of November was magnificent. If there is a player who makes more metres after contact in the global game, then it must be in games that aren’t televised to the wider public.
The All Blacks have good depth when it comes to young ball-carrying eights, with Hoskins Sotutu at the head of the queue, but they will have a massive job trying to out-perform Savea. He’s relentless.
The ‘dark arts’ have moved
The ‘dark arts’ were once reserved for those who were 18 stone and with necks that have their own time zone. These acts were performed in dimly-lit, damp areas where players underwent things that should never really be seen outside of a puppeteer’s convention. But times have changed, and the dark arts are now to be found in the kick-chase and particularly underneath the box-kick.
As we saw in Llanelli, England’s work under the high ball was exemplary and allowed them to dominate the aerial battle. In reality, it isn’t what happens in the air that’s key, it’s what happens on the ground.
England’s ability to set a ‘shield’ of players around the target area is vital in winning what takes place in the air. Such is the precision of the ‘catch’ in modern rugby, that any player who can fill the space in front of the catcher has already won the battle.
The key is to not make it look like you’ve altered your line. If you can accurately predict where the ball will land and run in a slow, but deliberate, line, you’ll make it much easier for the player who is actually going to take flight and win the ball.
England did it so effectively against Wales that it even stifled Dan Biggar’s attempts in the air and he is, despite being an outside-half, one of the best takers of a high ball in the game.
England did plenty of things well against Wales, but their tactics around the catch were superb.
We need a new stat
Some rugby supporters hate stats, some love them. But like it or not, they’re a vital part of the game and have become core to understanding and enjoying the sport.
However, there is one key stat that is rarely presented on TV coverage or in post-match write-ups and that is ‘tries disallowed’ – or, more precisely, the number of times that a team crosses the tryline without scoring.
Getting to the tryline is the hardest thing to do in the game and with modern defence as effective as it is, touching the ball down seems immeasurably harder than it did just a decade ago.
We often dwell on how much possession and territory a team wins when many of the world’s dominant teams manage victory with well under 50% of the ball – often nearer 40%. As we saw when England beat Ireland, the tackle statistics were grossly in favour of England, yet Ireland weren’t in the game at all – a high tackle count usually works against the team making it.
We also obsess over lineout completions and scrums when, in reality, all of the key performance indicators count for nothing unless you cross the tryline in one form or another. One more stat won’t hurt, let’s chuck it into the mix.
Pumas prove that exposure works
Don’t let the recent 38-0 loss to the All Blacks dilute the importance of the Pumas’ initial victory over New Zealand. It was epic in every way. Teams such as Wales, Ireland and Scotland have played Tier One rugby for decades but don’t come close to regularly beating New Zealand.
For the Pumas to have beaten them was remarkable. To have done it having prepared for the match in an almost Covid-enforced, amateur-era style merely added to the mystique. Their approach really does make you question the benefits of meticulous over-preparation when compared to rocking up with a team of players who are injury-free and relaxed.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the victory is that it proves that exposure to better teams does work in the long term. Many will point to Italy as evidence to disprove that theory, but as a glass half-full approach, ‘playing up’ in standard certainly seems to have its positives.
Faletau, the sideways master
Taulupe Faletau has had a quiet couple of seasons by his standards. Injury has seen the once first-choice Wales No 8 not exactly slide down the pecking order, but for once his selection has at least been a debate and not an assumption. But when he’s in form, as we saw against England, he is by far the best ball-carrier in the Welsh squad.
Jake Ball carries well, make no mistake, and his recent performances have seen him arguably become Wales’ most important lock. But Faletau’s carries are different. There is, of course, grunt, but before that there is a smooth move to the side. It’s a slide that allows him to move one foot to the right, or left, of the defenders’ rigid core and into the gooey spaces on the edge.
It’s like watching rugby Frogger, where simply running blindly forward means that you will eventually get messed up by something heavy. Whereas Faletau shuffles left, right and sometimes backwards before moving forwards.
We have all become obsessed with how carriers move forwards, and the attritional metres gained, but often the best go in a different direction first.
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