From Dan Biggar to Damian McKenzie, Paul Williams delivers his latest rugby round-up
Why Dan Biggar is peaking at Northampton
It took Dan Biggar to move out of Wales for him to finally get the recognition that his skill-set deserves. It’s a strange situation and one which, judging by the reaction on Twitter, many English Premiership fans were seemingly unaware of.
Under Chris Boyd at Northampton, the Wales fly-half is in the form of his career, playing true triple-threat rugby, something many questioned whether he possessed.
It’s not that Biggar hasn’t had the skills, it’s that some of his coaches haven’t allowed them to be displayed. He has played the bulk of his career in a kick-heavy period in rugby and one where retention of possession has always been treasured over what you do with that possession, especially at Test level.
But at Saints, that isn’t the case. With Boyd’s Premiership/Super Rugby fusion, Biggar has been allowed to take off the electric-shock dog collar and attack the gain-line – his passing has been nothing short of sublime.
It has taken a shallower pool of British & Irish Lions level tens in 2021 to highlight just how well Biggar is playing but, in reality, his performances should be highlighted regardless of the tour to South Africa.
Biggar is playing the best rugby of his career and, at 31 years of age, he’s still very much in his prime.
Damian McKenzie is winning
‘Winning’ used to be a very precise and positive word. We knew what it meant; it related to sports and elections. Now it has been hijacked to describe things like getting an extra chicken McNugget in your box of nine or a seagull’s guano hitting your mate, not you.
Yet Damian McKenzie has clearly had enough of this dilution in meaning of the word ‘winning’ and took it to a new level in April and late March. He’s winning everything, mostly in the last minutes and as a direct result of his actions.
After much research (about seven minutes), it appears that his match-winning actions in the last ten minutes of games are unique. They included an 80th-minute try and conversion win over the Blues, an 86th-minute golden-point win against the Highlanders, a 78th-minute match-winning penalty against the Crusaders and an 84th-minute penalty over the Hurricanes.
It would, of course, be stupid to suggest that he is winning the matches on his own. The Chiefs’ turnaround this season from last has been incredible. Although it must be said that when their ‘worst run in Kiwi Super rugby history’ was in full flow, it was in a league with the most concentrated level of quality that the global club game has ever seen – every week you’re playing the Kiwis.
In that same sense, their run of wins is even more spectacular.
Summer rugby is no longer a fantasy
Much like the pastry-based snacks served at many sports grounds, rugby is best served warm. As we saw in April, the quality of rugby is vastly higher when the temperature is above ten degrees and players aren’t worrying about snapping their fingers when taking a high ball.
You need no further evidence than having watched Exeter v Bristol or Dragons v Scarlets in April. And having done so, the benefits of warm-weather rugby can no longer be ignored, even if the changes required to make this happen are.
In previous decades supporting drastic changes, like a switch to summer rugby for the professional game, would have had you sectioned under the Rugby Health Act. But, largely in part to Covid, radical suggestions now seem more palatable.
A data set of two isn’t exactly a scientific study, but a quick look at the key attacking stats from Bristol and Exeter’s two meetings does paint a picture. In January both teams collectively managed to carry the ball for 636m with 12 offloads. In April they carried for a total of 1067m with 28 offloads. Stats aside, the fixture in late April was one of the highlights of the year.
Even if you think that summer rugby shouldn’t happen, it’s difficult to argue that it wouldn’t create more entertaining, less box-kick heavy rugby.
The goal-line restart is a game changer
Super Rugby in the southern hemisphere is in its second season trialling the goal-line restart and the Rainbow Cup is also giving it a whirl. Whilst we’re all used to law tweaks having varying impacts on the game, the goal-line restart is the one that could potentially bring about the biggest change in playing style.
Over the past five seasons we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of tries scored from lineout mauls and an increasing reliance on multi-phase ‘pick and go’ on the try-line. The lower risk associated with limiting the number of passes is obvious, but some may argue that rugby’s aesthetic has suffered as a result.
The efficiency of such plays has even led to them becoming identifiable as part of a team’s DNA. With their immaculate carry and cleanout, Exeter are the unrivalled European kings of the tight pick and go, while teams like the Brumbies and Ulster have developed attacking lineout mauls that are as difficult to stop as a pyroclastic flow.
The goal-line restart makes these plays inherently riskier, as any ball held up over the line, which happens regularly and is part of the ‘wearing down’ process of the defensive line, is now turned over.
The big question remains. Is it fair to remove what for some teams is their key strength, in the same way that the serve and volley was removed from tennis in the late 1990s? Worth keeping an eye on, either way.
Jasper Wiese is becoming cult figure at Leicester
Apparently, a leopard can’t change its spots. But if you’re Jasper Wiese, a Cheetah can change its spots to stripes and with it drive his level of performance to the next level.
Weise was a solid player in South Africa, but injuries and limited appearances gave few, except the talent spotters at Leicester, any inkling that he would become one of the best new signings in the Gallagher Premiership. What’s more, he’s dominating and attracting attention from No 8, which is a position in England where you can score a try in every game and still not get in the national squad.
Since his arrival, Weise has crossed the gain-line more times than Downing Street has been redecorated; he just doesn’t seem to go backwards. Even in a three-man hit, he makes it forwards and he’s sixth in the league for defenders beaten – a stat reserved for players in the back three.
Weise is fast becoming a cult figure at Tigers and is arguably the best pound-for-pound signing of the season, for any team in England.
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