Paul Williams reflects on rugby’s goings-on over the past few weeks
England wing Adam Radwan has wow factor
There are certain players who move differently to others and are so freaky (in a good way) that you can’t take your eyes off them.
Nemani Nadolo is one. His touchline break in round two of the Gallagher Premiership was incredible and made you set your feet, and brace your shoulders, even whilst watching on the couch.
The other who has impressed in the opening weeks is Newcastle Falcons wing Adam Radwan. He doesn’t just move incredibly for a rugby player but for a human. His acceleration and lateral movement are so extreme that he almost looks like a different type of animal altogether.
If you’ve ever seen a green basilisk lizard run across the surface of water, you’ll get the picture. I’m not suggesting that Newcastle get Radwan to try to run across the River Tyne, but if the social media team have a spare afternoon, it would be great!
Tigers, Cooper and Williams deliver a warm feeling
As an increasingly middle-aged man watching his best days slowly drip away, the late 2000s was a golden period. Not only was it a great time for rugby, but one could also play tennis for three hours without cramping up in public five hours later and falling to the floor like a baby deer.
It has therefore been like drinking a massive mug of warm hot rugby to see the likes of Leicester Tigers, Quade Cooper and Scott Williams either return to their old clubs, nations or form.
To see the Tigers at the top of the Premiership is genuinely fantastic. After what has been a chaotic previous decade for the club, to see them rebuild successfully has been fantastic, albeit that the rest of the league may not find Nemani Nadolo running riot overly comforting!
It is also great to see Ellis Genge become the loosehead that we knew he would be and the leader that some unfairly doubted he could be.
Scott Williams running out for the Scarlets also delivered a level of nostalgia that was right up there with the quality of his passing against Edinburgh.
And by far the greatest smile has been delivered by Quade Cooper featuring at ten for the Wallabies. Many thought that Cooper’s return was a knee-jerk reaction, so extreme that Dave Rennie would knock himself out with his own leg. But how wrong we were.
Cooper has not only returned at the same standard, but arguably better. Where he once looked for the big miss-three, he now looks for the simple inside ball into the space created by the threat of the miss-three.
13s are the casualties of the kicking game
Historically when things aren’t going right in a match, it was the wings who suffered. You’d often see them standing alone in the cold and rain, by the touchline, like an image from a poor romantic novel. But the box-kick heavy approach by some, not all, has meant that it is the outside-centre who now suffers the most.
With box kicks, the wings are busier than ever. They may not be running in tries, but their defensive and escorting role is now vital to the game. Yet it is the 13 who has suffered as they are often just too wide to be involved in box-kick alley and with a kicking ten, and 12 option, they’re unlikely to receive the ball should kicking tactics be executed.
In their first match against the All Blacks, the Springboks actually kicked twice as much ball as New Zealand. You need only look at Lukhanyo Am’s stats to see the effect. Am is a fantastic player, both with and without the ball, yet he didn’t get a single touch until nearly the 60th minute – only four touches after 80 minutes.
The problem of the ‘kicking game’ is probably being over-egged. If you watch the Wallabies, Bristol or Mike Blair’s Edinburgh, you may not even know what a box kick is. But it is a shame that some of the most creative players on the field, the 13s, are now playing such a small role. Give ‘em the ball.
Lineout defence is the new scrum
Ten years ago, if you didn’t have a scrummage, you were done for. That is still, of course, true today. But the most important aspect of the set-piece is now lineout defence. Without one, you will struggle to win consistently and at Test level the importance increases exponentially.
You need only look at the Boks’ lineout defence against the All Blacks, without which the margin of loss would have been greater. You simply can’t throw front ball to South Africa anymore. If you do, they merely forget the ball, and the jumper, all angle towards the touchline and sweep everything across the line like a snowplow.
It’s brilliant in its execution. With the ability of modern tens to accurately find the corner from penalties, on the ten-metre line and the silver lining of the 50:22, lineout defence is only going to increase in importance, which is a massive positive for former locks who tend to be overlooked for senior coaching roles.
Are the law tweaks affecting Exeter?
It’s great to see Saracens back in the Premiership; they’ve served their punishment and hopefully lessons have been learnt by all. But the real news in the opening weeks doesn’t really concern Saracens. Even the immaculate opening form of Leicester Tigers is largely superseded by Exeter’s opening results.
Firstly, it is obviously early days and Exeter have some big bits of kit yet to return, but the new law tweaks do seem to be adversely affecting them.
The goal-line restart means that Exeter’s pick-and-go game, whilst still hugely effective, doesn’t allow for the accumulation of pressure and fatigue from repeated attempts to cross the tryline. Whereas they used to once be able to batter the opposition’s defence like a 900kg woodpecker, now they are reduced to a 900kg bee with just one crack at it.
The new 50:22 law also favours those teams who lean towards a wide approach due to the increased space created in the backfield. And whilst Exeter have a fantastic back three, who can attack from anywhere, they won’t benefit from the tweak as much as a Bristol or Northampton.
Exeter will surely feature in the top four at the end of the season, but the early signs mean that the Chiefs may be more disadvantaged by the new laws than than most.
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