From jumping Jack to the brilliant Baa-Baas, Paul Williams reflects on rugby’s recent goings-on
Jack Nowell is the most underrated player in England
The title of most underrated player in England is usually reserved for Alex Goode, whose continued exclusion from the England squad will remain one of our civilisation’s great unanswered questions – we’ll probably discover the fourth dimension before we get our heads around the Saracens full-back not being selected.
However, Jack Nowell should now be considered the most underrated. It may be unfair to compare the two players, given that one has rather cruelly become a Test leper and the other has two British & Irish Lions Test appearances and 31 England caps. But given Nowell’s impact on any game in which he plays, the fact that he doesn’t have a position nailed in the England squad is odd.
His performance for Exeter against Saracens in the Gallagher Premiership final was awesome. Nine defenders beaten and 54m carried, where every metre had at least one of Saracens’ monsters clinging onto his limbs.
Other than Liam Williams, there are few backs in the world who refuse to accept a tackle like Nowell. Hitting him once isn’t the problem, you must keep hold of him and drag him to the floor whilst he’s constantly battling to move forward like an American weather reporter in a hurricane.
Maro Itoje may have won the Man of the Match award, but Nowell was the best player on the field.
Barbarians force you to play open
We all know the Barbarians’ brand of rugby. It is one of the most distinct styles that the game has ever seen: offload first, think second. Admittedly, it leads to a lot of errors but, more importantly, it leads to some of the finest tries that you’ll ever see – and England v the Barbarians was no different.
Yet perhaps the greatest impact the Baa-Baas have is not just delivering their style of rugby, but forcing the opposition to alter their strategy. When a team is regularly notching up 45-plus points, you simply can’t rely on set-piece and penalties – and England didn’t.
Alex Mitchell, Alex Dombrandt and Joe Marchant were sensational and easily the equals of their more senior opposition.
As an aside, the Barbarians’ impact also seemed to leak beyond their fixture and into the Premiership final, where Exeter beat a truly remarkable 44 defenders, turning the unfairly labelled most boring team in rugby into the weekend’s most creative.
This isn’t to say that the entire Barbarians’ game was a sling-it-at-all-costs affair; it wasn’t. Pat Lam picked a very solid tight five, with Joe Marler, Richard Hibbard and John Afoa providing England’s youngsters with a scrummaging lesson that will long leave a boot mark on their behinds.
Maro Itoje isn’t a blindside flanker
There are currently thousands of experiments underway across the globe. Donald Trump is trying to alienate every nation in the world and British politics is seeing if it can disappear up its own anus. However, one experiment that isn’t worth pursuing is playing Maro Itoje at six.
It may seem unfair to criticise a player of Itoje’s ability, especially when he has just won the Champions Cup and Premiership. However, he is clearly a lock.
It’s understandable why Saracens select him at blindside. Who wouldn’t want Will Skelton, George Kruis and Itoje on the field at the same time? Having all three on the field adds mass that no other team in the northern hemisphere can cope with and gives them so many lineout options that Jamie George can effectively close his eyes, throw the ball and it’s almost guaranteed to hit someone over 6ft 5in tall.
But it is Itoje’s height that causes the problems at six. Instead of clearing rucks and moving beyond the breakdown, Itoje is trying to compete over the ball and if the jackal doesn’t work his long limbs are left stretched throughout the ruck with a penalty often ensuing.
Other than Tadhg Beirne, there are no players over 6ft 5in who can play flanker efficiently; it is simply a matter of biomechanics – their limbs are too long. Many nations and clubs have tried to morph locks into sixes. But Itoje is one of the world’s best locks, so leave him there.
Why don’t refs get subbed?
The importance of player fatigue in modern rugby is well known. GPS systems mean that coaches can analyse exactly when a player’s performance has peaked and when they need to be replaced. Yet, we don’t do the same thing with referees. Modern refs cover approximately 8,500m in a game whereas backs cover between 7,000 and 7,500 and forwards between 5,000 and 7,000.
Whilst referees may not have to deal with the collisions and impacts that players do, covering nearly 9km is a big ask and is bound to influence their performance. It would be interesting to see if more refereeing mistakes are made in the last 15 minutes, when compared to the opening 15.
With three officials on the field there is no reason that they couldn’t switch at half-time and allow the fresher legs of the assistant referee to whistle the second 40. This would, of course, raise issues of inconsistency in refereeing and may be the ramblings of a fool still giddy from predicting the right score in the Premiership final.
A fond farewell to George Smith
The day has finally come – George Smith has retired. Rumours that Smith made his debut alongside William Webb Ellis remain unconfirmed but that he has had one of the greatest careers in the history of the game is undeniable.
Were it not for Richie McCaw, Smith would have been the best openside flanker in the world for more than a decade. Smith arguably played in the heyday of openside flankers with McCaw, Schalk Burger, Thierry Dusautoir and Martyn Williams, and yet he still managed to dominate more often than not.
He, along with McCaw, redefined the role of a genuine seven, where ground work and defence were a given, and where link play and positional awareness became the mark of the true greats.
But perhaps most remarkably, as with McCaw, is that he managed to play at the highest level for so long in what is undoubtedly the most injury-prone position on the field. Smith should and will rightly be remembered as one of the greats.
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