There has been plenty happening over recent weeks – here are Paul Williams’s reflections
Johann van Graan right man for Bath
The coaching change at Bath has been a long time coming. Even the most patient of supporters will have been downloading mindfulness apps from the start of the season – if not last. They currently have four points from ten matches in the Gallagher Premiership.
The change has come and from next season Johann van Graan will be bringing his blueprints to the Rec. It’s the perfect appointment.
The rare criticism that JvG receives at Munster regards his forward-dominated approach. But that is exactly what Bath need. Bath’s recent squads always seem to have been built from the back, an approach that occasionally works in Super Rugby but rarely anywhere else.
JvG will start with the front row, locks, back row, nine and ten – in that order. Once that is sorted, he’ll focus on getting his centres over the gain-line.
It’s a game plan that works more often than not and will allow Bath the consistency that the English Premiership requires, and their supporters deserve.
Randall The Tempo
Randall The Tempo may sound like an early Saxon king, or a Nineties wrestler who entered the ring carrying sheet music and a conductor’s baton, but it is the only way to accurately describe Harry Randall’s influence on Bristol.
There are plenty of scrum-halves who dictate the pace of the game. Some slow it down, some speed it up. But there are few teams whose entire tempo is dictated so exactingly by their nine.
Randall takes the ‘quick tap’ to a new level. It’s almost a ‘nano tap’. If your TV is old, with a low frame rate, he can cause wires to smoke. Against Leicester, even in defeat, his impact on the game was remarkable. It got to the point where Tigers couldn’t commit an offence within ten metres of him, without him picking up the ball, tapping it and making 20m untouched.
It’s clearly a deliberate ploy from Pat Lam who has given Randall more licence to thrill than a 1970s Bond and the impact is huge. Bristol may be struggling this season compared to last, but it’s not because of Randall.
Watching at ‘eyeline’ is where it’s at
Watching Antione Dupont from the terrace at Cardiff Arms Park, in the European Champions Cup, was awesome. Not only is he one of the best scrum-halves that this columnist has ever had the pleasure to write about, but seeing him at the same eyeline in which he is playing takes the experience up a level.
Most of us now watch players either from high up in a stand or on TV. We get used to seeing professional rugby players through this lens and the things that seem normal through that filter.
However, when you get to see a player like Dupont up close and with your head roughly in line with his, you’re seeing him through the lens of amateur rugby – like you’re watching from the sideline at your local club.
To see him make a line break in front of your eyes makes you realise that he is reading the game at a level few can. Watching him hand off players twice his size makes you realise what being an elite rugby player really means. And to see him execute a cross-field box-kick seamlessly, without even looking up from the base of the ruck, will live long in the memory.
Sitting in a corporate box may seem like the most expensive and desirable ticket in rugby, but watching it at pitch level is priceless.
‘Back ten’ the magic words
There are certain words in rugby that you no longer hear on a regular basis, if at all. ‘Stamping’ and ‘raking’ have been rightly eradicated from the game and therefore rugby’s dictionary – replaced by modern rugby terms like ‘image rights’.
But there is one phrase that seemed to be on its way out only to make a glorious return in December – ‘Get back another ten!’. Hearing a referee marching players back ten metres, on a penalty/free-kick, is a glorious return to rugby of yesteryear.
This isn’t some desire to return to an age where summers seemed longer, policemen were taller and national service was character building. And this isn’t a gammon-flavoured rant delivered through a fog of red wine and a yellowing smile.
Marching players back ten metres is a positive way for referees to gain control of a game that is becoming increasingly hard to manage by one person with a whistle.
Both Luke Pearce and Wayne Barnes allowed players to add a few metres to their GPS readings in December and it made the players realise who really is in charge on the field.
The referee isn’t some passive force merely executing the rules, sorry laws (there’s a book on Amazon that goes into further details!); the referee is in charge of the game. Marching players back ten may seem like something from an age gone by, but it has a role to play in modern rugby.
Cardiff do themselves proud in Europe
Since Brexit, there may be issues with imports and exports. Fully-trained HGV drivers are harder to find than a decent tighthead. Tennis rackets have gone up in price by 30%. And the UK is now reduced to doing trade deals with the puffins of Skomer Island and commercially savvy penguins in Antarctica.
However, Cardiff’s performances in Europe are something to be proud of. That they even managed to put a team on the field was remarkable. That they were able to compete for 60 minutes with Toulouse and Harlequins was almost worthy of a Netflix special.
To see part-time front-row forwards dealing with some of the best props in the world is something that you rarely see in the modern game – yet by and large the Cardiff stand-ins did themselves proud.
Dan Fish added to his cult status once again with an almost career-defining performance in a position that he has rarely played, and within a back-line that had probably never even met prior to these fixtures.
Of course, it wasn’t all down to enforced selections. Ellis Jenkins and James Botham were Test level in both fixtures, and they held together a group of players who redefined the word teamwork.
Yes, Cardiff lost both fixtures and the final 20 minutes in both games were tricky – but what else would you expect? Many thought that they may concede upwards of 60 or 70 points against the current English and French champions.
Tigers’ 14 phases of calm
The best squads make rugby look simple sometimes. Even under extreme pressure, they’re able to keep the butterflies in a net and move through the basics, where many other teams look like they’re running wild in a lepidopterarium.
To watch Leicester’s final 14 phases against Bristol was worthy of an NFT. Fourteen phases of calculated cleanouts, perfect body positions and carriers maintaining their spacing.
Even when the move looked like it would break down, it didn’t. Tigers simply started their process again and the result was a walk-in try in the corner.
Tigers are winning games that they look like they shouldn’t. And that’s exactly how titles are won.
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