Our columnist looks at the key talking points from a jam-packed weekend of Test rugby
Rugby needs an orange card
New Zealand v France once again saw a card decide the fixture – which has since been rescinded. The clumsy mid-air challenge of Benjamin Fall on Beauden Barrett, was a straight red.
But the incident does question the balance between player safety and entertainment for the consumer. Player safety is obviously paramount, but not absolute. The best way to maintain player safety is to not play rugby at all. If France hadn’t played the All Blacks, no-one would have been injured, but then nobody would have been paid. Beauden Barrett wouldn’t have been concussed, but then he would also be back working on the farm with his brothers. With mid-air challenges and high-tackles being rightly highlighted and punished, rugby needs an in-between measure. Where teams are punished for their actions, but the consumer still gets their product.
Related: When red cards are fully deserved
Red cards should be kept for deliberate and vile acts of foul play – stamping and gouging etc. Orange cards would be used for unintentionally dangerous play, where the outcome was serious, but the intent wasn’t. 20 minutes in the bin for an orange card would damage any team’s chances of winning but wouldn’t ruin the game entirely. The idea of an orange card may be laughed at. But it would work.
Tadhg Furlong – the ‘fright-head’
We’re long used to the loosehead’s role being expanded beyond mere scrummaging. Players such as Gethin Jenkins, Tony Woodcock, and the Tendai ‘The Beast’ Mtawarira (who was awesome against England in the second test) redefined the skillset of a number one over a decade ago.
In the modern game, looseheads like Rob Evans, Ellis Genge and Mako Vunipola are the equal of back-row forwards and the ability to carry and distribute is a given, not an optional extra. But that change in skill-set has been slower for tightheads. Such is the required mass of a number three that speed and handling are very much an afterthought. That was until Tadgh Furlong arrived.
His display against the Wallabies in the second test was a game changer. Ireland’s third highest ball carrier and six defenders beaten are ridiculous numbers for a tighthead. Not to mention his try, which also broke the mould. Most tighthead’s tries are two metre trundles, where an impact is followed by a low leg-drive. Furlong, however, hit the angle like a centre. This wasn’t a leg chafing carry, where a prop’s sausage-like thighs were unable to grind past each other, this was a back-row-like leg-lift. He didn’t plop over the line, he flew over it.
It’s also worth remembering that none of this was achieved with any compromise at the scrum. Furlong doesn’t just cause problems in the tight, he frightens defences all over the field. The age of the ‘fright-head’ is here.
Calls for England not to panic are too late
England have lost five tests in a row, six games if you include the Barbarians. And whilst the calls to resist panicky overreactions are sensible. One can only assume that the ultimate panicky decision would be to sack Eddie Jones, an overreaction indeed, but there are varying degrees of panicky decisions that are all ready in full flow.
The selection of Danny Cipriani in the squad was a clue. Despite his immaculate Premiership season, his inclusion reeked of panic when compared to Jones’s hitherto very conservative approach to outside-half play. The rushed introduction of Brad Shields was another. His involvement was as big a surprise to Shields as it was to Chris Robshaw – whose days as a first-choice option look behind him. The selection of Elliot Daly at full-back and the moving of Mike Brown to the wing was unusual to say the least.
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Brown, whilst immaculate in the air, has looked short of Test-level pace at full-back, let alone on the wing. And whilst the ability to take high balls and jackal in midfield is a valuable skill to have, speed is the primary concern of a wing both offensively and defensively – ‘steady’ wings no longer have a role in Test rugby. England’s summer tour will already be regarded as a ‘Holiday from hell’. A loss in Cape Town and this trip could be upgraded to a Banged Up Abroad-level of fiasco.
USA keeping it simple
Scotland won’t be overly concerned with their loss to the USA. Unlike Ireland and England, this was always a development tour. With the end goal being to discover another five to eight players who can cut it in Japan. But that shouldn’t detract from the USA’s performance. They were impressive.
The USA took a very pragmatic approach to Scotland and it worked perfectly. Unlike many Tier Two teams who often opt for unnecessarily intricate work in the back-line, in over eagerness to imitate Tier One nations, the USA were wonderfully simple in their execution. They built their entire attacking platform around two players – Joe Taufete’e at hooker and Paul Lasike at 12. If there were few options available on the fringes of rucks, Taufete’e trucked it up. If there was little opportunity out wide, Lasike smashed it up through the centre. It meant that the USA regularly bounced over the gain-line and allowed their flankers to get to the ball quicker than ants on a Pop Tart. Well played the USA.
Wales look comfortable attacking
During the Warren Gatland era Wales have always looked comfortable defending, comfortable carrying in the narrow channels, comfortable goal-kicking and comfortable at the ruck. But against Argentina, they have proved that they now have a squad of players who are comfortable handling.
Over the past decade, Wales have selected players in key positions, whose specialism was so positive to the squad, that the negative aspects of their skill-sets were accepted. But that has now changed. Wales no longer have back-row forwards who only tackle and do little else. They no longer have centres who can crash the 12 channel, and defend, but offer little else. They no longer have full-backs who defend but are uncomfortable hitting the 13 channels at speed.
With Ellis Jenkins, James Davies, Hallam Amos, Owen Watkin, Cory Hill and Josh Adams they have genuine triple-threat players. The previous accusations of ‘Warren-Ball’ really have disappeared. It may have been that Warren-ball was played because that was the only skill-set available to the coaches at the time. But that isn’t the case now. Wales may have faced a Pumas squad short of their best, but that doesn’t change the fact that they now have some big decisions to make with the World Cup just over 12 months away. Do they pick the trusted maulers, or roll with the ballers?
France, Wallabies and Boks are back
This weekend’s fixtures proved that three of rugby’s superpowers are back.
Bizarrely, the reasons for all three’s demise is the same – too much cash in the Top 14. But the impact of that cash looks to have diminished. After the overfishing from France and the English Premiership, the South African and Australian player pools are beginning to restock. Tweaks in overseas selection policies have helped both the Boks and Wallabies to an extent, but it is undoubtedly the return of senior players to their domestic leagues that has had the biggest impact.
Kurtley Beale and Duane Vermeulen (contract undecided) are both exemplars. But perhaps the biggest turnaround has been France. Despite two horrendous weekends against the All Blacks regarding yellow and red cards, they haven’t looked like giving up. It might be said that measuring a team’s ability to not ‘give up’ isn’t exactly cutting-edge rugby analysis. But at its simplest rugby is about effort.
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To lose to the All Blacks by just 13 points, having played with 14 men for 68 minutes, demonstrates a very different attitude in the French squad. To score a beautiful try in the 81st minute even more so. France had more ball, more possession, more clean breaks, more defenders beaten and a tackle completion just three percent lower than the All Blacks. Most teams don’t manage that with 15. Well played France. Keep it up.
Jonny May holding England together
It is weird that during a tour when England’s players are losing their heads, the player often labelled as a headless chicken has found his.
‘Headless chicken’ is obviously a very cruel label for anyone who is talented enough to play Test rugby, but prior to this tour May wasn’t exactly regarded as a textbook winger. Wonderfully unorthodox line-breaks either ended in a try of the season nomination or a pass into the face of a spectator. But that isn’t the player that we have seen on the tour of South Africa.
May is the most composed of the backs. For the second week in a row, he has beaten six defenders. But these breaks haven’t ended in a dichotomous try or a handling error – they are ending in a simple pass inside and try assist. This new aspect to May’s game has transformed his reputation from a high-risk finisher, to a high-percentage playmaker. Well played Jonny May.