Paul Williams reflects on the game’s recent goings-on, from super Savea to horrible hammerings
Ardie Savea the standout All Black
The All Blacks were stunning in Cardiff. Even if Wales had a full squad available and played the fixture towards the end of the autumn window, it is unlikely that the result would have been any different. The score wouldn’t have been as heavy, but it wouldn’t have been materially different.
When you watch the All Blacks perform like that, it is difficult not to be in awe. New Zealand perform with a consistency that no other team, in any other sport in the world, has ever managed – 50 years of dominance is unheard of. And so it proved in Cardiff.
Some will argue that Beauden Barrett should have received a card for his attempted intercept and that the mid-air collision was also officiated incorrectly. But it wouldn’t have made any difference, in real terms. Not when New Zealand have players like Dalton Papali’i, both Barrett brothers, Ethan Blackadder and Brodie Retallick.
The Kiwis delivered seven tries, 600m carried, 27 defenders beaten and a ridiculous 93% defensive completion – in Tier One rugby, that’s as good as it gets.
Yet above all of the individuals mentioned above, stood Ardie Savea. His performance in Cardiff was one of the best that stadium has ever seen from a No 8 – and it has seen some greats. His ability to make yards through contact should be held in higher regard than any back-row player who makes a line break. Once the line break is made, you’re away.
Savea was driving through contact, and making five to ten yards, with three defenders hanging off his back. It was like watching a young father trying to go to work whilst his three kids, desperately not wanting him to leave, hung off his shoulders. Savea made an incredible 72 yards, each wearing a Welsh player as a necklace. It was unbelievable.
Wales will obviously improve this weekend with the return of their England-based players. And Wayne Pivac will be very pleased with the performance of Aaron Wainwright – he was excellent on both sides of the ball.
But for the time being, New Zealand remain as far ahead of Wales as they ever have.
October – the month of hammerings
Pasting, leathering, battering. Whatever you call it, there were a few handed out in October. Saracens thumped Wasps. Saints did the same to Worcester. La Rochelle pummeled Toulon. Scotland punished Tonga. New Zealand choke-slammed Wales. And Leinster walloped the Scarlets. But these were all standard hammerings; 40-pointers.
What Saracens did to Bath in the Gallagher Premiership was a level up from this. This was a mafia-style ‘hiding’ and one that you rarely see in elite rugby. To concede 71 points is incredible. That’s nearly a point a minute. That’s the scoreboard ticking over at the same rate as a post-Covid heating bill.
Some have made apologies for Bath, said that Saracens were ultra-clinical, which they were. But no professional club team, playing in the same league as the opposition, should be conceding ten tries. Even the greatest mismatches in Super Rugby, the most attacking league in the sport, rarely create ten-try hammerings.
If you looked at the stats from the game, you would never have predicted the final score. Bath had parity of possession and territory. They had almost identical stats for tackles missed, line breaks and penalties conceded – yet leaked 71 points.
We’ve seen plenty of social media statements from Bath reassuring supporters that they have a plan, which is exactly the right thing to do. Because even the most ardent Bath supporter will be asking questions after a result like that. Let’s hope they manage to sort it out. They’re too good a club for that.
Casual try-scoring in the Top 14
You see some beautiful tries in the Top 14, especially from the likes of Toulouse and Racing. But in October, some of the teams went one step further and moved beyond merely scoring a beautiful try and invented the ‘casual try’.
Some of the finishes were so casual that it looked beyond risky, almost bordering on lethargic. Damian Penaud can be forgiven for his effort. As he looked to pass, when over the try-line, to allow Alivereti Raka to score a hat-trick – Raka refused the ball.
Whereas Sekou Macalou passed inside to his nine with seemingly no agenda, just that he wanted to pass the ball.
This relaxed attitude to scoring was great to see, especially in a rugby environment where five pointers are at a premium. Keep it France, the home of the ‘casual try’.
We’ve got leggings, now give us gloves
October saw World Rugby allow the use of leggings and tights for all players on the pitch.
It is primarily to stop the abrasions that are sadly part of the game when playing on synthetic pitches. Have a look at Jack Nowell’s tweet where he shows the wounds on his legs. It looks like he was an extra in a horror film, primarily filmed in the power tool aisle of B&Q.
Whatever your opinion on synthetic pitches, allowing leg coverings to be worn is a flexible move from World Rugby. And makes you wonder whether the next move should be for full fingered gloves during winter – particularly for the forwards.
Full fingered gloves would improve handling and ball retention in the wet and cold, and whilst it may not help half-backs (those who pass more than any other players on the field), those players who tend to carry and receive, more than they pass and offload, would benefit hugely. If it isn’t a benefit, why do they use them in the NFL?
Great to see the Australia revival
NWA were good without Ice Cube, but they weren’t NWA. The Rugby Championship was still good even when Australia weren’t competitive, but now they’re really starting to express themselves.
The Wallabies delivered some fantastic performances in the tournament – beating the Boks back-to-back is something few teams can dream of, let alone execute. The change in the policy of picking overseas players was instrumental.
Samu Kerevi gave the Wallabies exactly what they’ve been missing in midfield. His triple threat (kick, pass, run) chaos kept every single defensive line guessing and the result was either a devastating line break in midfield, or space outside – at times he was undefendable.
The return of Quade Cooper 2.0 was arguably one of the greatest selections by a Wallaby coach and his new-found calmness and simplicity of passing allowed the back-line to keep the opposition guessing, not just his own team-mates.
Of course, none of it would have been achievable without Michael Hooper, who is half man, half Hoover – if it’s on the floor, he’s cleaning it up.
The Rugby Championship is a fantastic tournament and the highest quality of rugby outside of the Rugby World Cup. It’s great to see Australia back.
Saints run a proper decoy
The word decoy in rugby has changed meanings in recent years. With the influence of rugby league in attacking patterns, there are more decoys than during the KGB’s peak. But most of those decoys aren’t really decoys. They’re often players running less than convincing lines, with a level of acting normally reserved for a school play.
But that was not the case when Northampton played Worcester. Saints had a scrum on Worcester’s 22, where Alex Mitchell faked a line to the blindside that convinced nearly everyone on the field – including the cameraman.
It certainly took Worcester’s nine and kept their back row pinned near the scrum. The result was that Saints were able to send a runner straight into midfield – untouched by a back-rower.
The recycled possession was cleaner than a Disney film and allowed Mitchell, the initial decoy, to score from the second phase. It was beautiful.
The Leicester Tigers bit
Tigers are playing so well this season that this column seems to be mentioning them every month. So, from now on, this will become a permanent feature.
This week they mangled Saints. Next week, they’re probably going to mangle your team.
Join us next month for the Leicester Tigers’ bit.
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