From LRZ to SBW, Paul Williams reflects on recent goings-on in rugby
Louis Rees-Zammit is more than pace
As complex as rugby is as a sport, our descriptions of players can be a bit one-dimensional. Instead of describing all of a player’s attributes, we take their most prominent skill and go with it. A player is either big, fast, has good hands or a good defender.
It is into this narrative that the impressive Louis Rees-Zammit has already fallen, and it is doing him an injustice even at this early stage in his career.
Most of the Six Nations saw LRZ labelled as having more pure gas than the Persian Gulf, but he is so much more than that. For a kick-off, he’s big. He’s 6ft 3in tall and despite only touching the mid-80s in kilograms, he’ll probably get up to the low 90s soon enough.
LRZ also possesses an accurate and powerful kicking game – as we saw with his 60m banana-kick touchfinder against Scotland. Add to that a fantastic offload game and solid short-range passing, and you have a player who is far from being just a fast bloke who can catch a bit.
Whether Rees-Zammit tours with the British & Irish Lions remains to be seen, but he will certainly be part of the late-night selection chats to come.
The Six Nations delivers
Whilst waiting for our Covid jabs, the Six Nations was the shot in the arm that all northern hemisphere rugby supporters needed. It was fantastic.
The box kick-laden days of Test rugby in the autumn seemed largely behind us and for the majority of nations we saw plenty of rugby played off ten and in the midfield channels, not 40ft up in the air between the 10m lines.
Wales delivered a stunning turnaround in performance based on a blend of fresh squad selection, the rewiring of George North and a focus on strict discipline/low card counts – or luck as many have decided to call it.
Scotland’s pack delivered the solid platform that it has always craved and in Hamish Watson one of the players of the tournament; he is pound for pound the most explosive player in northern hemisphere rugby.
Ireland saw Tadhg Beirne become one of the best hybrids in the world and Robbie Henshaw cement his selection as a Lions’ Test starter.
But perhaps the biggest factor in creating such a fantastic tournament was one that none of us wanted, or weirdly ever want to see again – no crowds. By diluting the impact of home advantage, we saw rugby played under less pressure, which delivered big upsets.
It wasn’t all roses of course. England’s squad selections, particularly at eight, raised a few eyebrows and consequently lowered performance levels. And whilst Italy had a very disappointing 2021 Six Nations, 2022 should be a very different scenario for that group of promising youngsters.
Tackle of the Year
When it comes to image problems, tackling in rugby is currently right up here with politicians’ expense accounts. Tackling, once considered a vital part of the game, is now regarded as a danger, a red-card threat and a scandalous headline waiting to happen.
But that shouldn’t always be the case and we can’t let the current necessary focus on high shots reduce the impact of aggressive legal hits, which are vital to dominating the gain-line and should be celebrated.
For every aggressive shot to the head and neck, there are 20 brilliant hits to the midriff that drive the carrier back quicker than a retreating MP. It is perhaps telling that in recent years we’ve become obsessed with total individual tackle counts, rather than the impact of those tackles. Because in reality, it is arguably more important for a player to put in six dominant hits, than 20 ‘soak’ tackles.
As with all rebrands tackling could do with a new launch initiative, such as an award. For instance, an award for the best legal dominant hit in the Six Nations would open up a positive debate on tackling and show youngsters that you don’t need to go high to dominate. Some of the most important tackles don’t for instance require any dominance as such, particularly those which stop tries in the corner – many of those are ankle tackles.
Whatever the solution, tackling in rugby needs to once again be established as a positive, not a negative.
Rugby without pressure – Rhys Priestland and Mike Brown
In many ways Rhys Priestland and Mike Brown seem like polar rugby opposites. One has a reputation for aggressive defensive play, the other for the subtleties of the attacking game. But as the past few months have shown, they have more in common than you’d think.
In recent years both have received unnecessary and overt criticism for their play in the Test arena and both have for various reasons stopped playing at that level. As a result, they are playing arguably the best rugby of their careers and more importantly excelling at the things that they were once criticised for.
In recent weeks Harlequins’ Brown has looked like the attacking full-back that everyone said he wasn’t. He has made more line breaks and beaten more defenders than Marcus Smith, which despite the difference in position and available space in those channels, may still surprise many. His form for Quins has been magnificent and his attacking lines have been a key to their resurgence in a post-Gustard world.
Then you have Priestland, who was once regarded as too shaky a kicker at Test level, breaking the Premiership record for most successful successive kicks at goal – taking it from Mr GK himself, Jonny Wilkinson.
Test rugby is, of course, the pinnacle, but it doesn’t always mean that’s where players perform at their best.
Sonny Bill’s legacy
March saw Sonny Bill Williams – one of the most dynamic, skilful and forceful centres that union has seen – retire from rugby.
His ability to offload through the tackle was a game-changer in union and heralded a new desire for midfield offloads. But for all of his impact on union, which was enormous, the reaction to his retirement felt rather muted – especially in the northern hemisphere.
It did get some headlines and chatter on social media, but not to the level that one might have expected. Some may argue that the diluted response to SBW’s retirement was a result of him being a cross-code player, but that certainly wasn’t the case when players like Jonathan Davies and Jason Robinson stopped playing.
The reality is that the dampened response may be due to the multiple career changes that he made, never seemingly committed fully to union and always being on the lookout for something new – something that in civilian life, outside of rugby, is seen as a positive.
Either way, he was a fantastic player and his contribution to rugby of all forms shouldn’t be forgotten. Congratulations on a fantastic career, SBW.
The next level for Pacific Island rugby
March saw some of the biggest news that professional rugby has witnessed – the Pacific Islands will have a presence in Super Rugby. At this stage the plans are embryonic and the funding even smaller, but World Rugby guaranteeing money to this project isn’t merely about the figures involved – the intent is enough.
The Pacific Islands having their own teams in Super Rugby means their players finally have an option to play professional rugby that doesn’t mean having to commit their Test future to another Super Rugby nation or move to Europe or Japan.
Of course, there will be those who still want to do both, especially those who can command the big wages. But that is not primarily who this project is aimed at. This is about enabling a core of players to remain in the Pacific Islands and make a solid living playing club rugby, whilst also being able to play for their country.
It also opens a glorious opportunity for those marquee Pacific Island players to return to play Super Rugby, after stints in Europe, and bolster those squads should they wish. The details at this stage remain unclear, but what is crystal is that this is a fantastic new start for an area of the rugby world that has done more for the game, per population, than any other.
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