From Ireland’s depth chart to the art of attacking kicks, Paul Williams gives his verdict on rugby’s goings-on

Ireland have club-country balance right

The balance between club and country in rugby has never quite, well, balanced. Other than New Zealand, who occasionally manage to even out Test success with that of their Super Rugby teams, every other nation has struggled to some degree.

When French clubs have dominated, often their Test team has failed. And with Wales over the past decade, the link between international prowess and regional progression has seemed as unbalanced as David Bowie’s diet in the 1970s – cocaine and milk.

Yet currently, if there is one European nation who has got it right, it’s Ireland. They have all of their four provinces in the knockout stages of the European Champions Cup and their Test-level depth chart is as balanced as 1995 Christian Cullen.

In the United Rugby Championship this season, all four Irish provinces have performed well too, with perhaps Ulster and Connacht making the biggest improvements.

Ulster now have backs that match their pack and Connacht have played some of the best counter-attacking rugby of any teams in the northern hemisphere.

Plus, at Test level, Andy Farrell now has access to a squad of players where the replacement of any individual is met with no discernable drop in quality – in any position other than possibly outside-half. We shall see how much precious metal Ireland actually produces over the next five months, but from the outside looking in, they are the envy of plenty.

Exeter Chiefs should be applauded

Exeter have attracted a lot of negative headlines related to off-field situations over the past 18 months. Namely the club’s branding. The use of Native American imagery was clearly never intended to be culturally insensitive at the time it was created, but the world was a different place even a decade ago.

And whilst you could argue that it took slightly longer than it should for Exeter Chiefs to change their brand, the club must be praised for acting in the way that they have. In fact, you could argue that they acted quite swiftly in branding terms. In my day job, I’m creative director of an advertising agency and I know exactly how long it takes to strip down a brand, rework it and redeliver.

On top of that we also need to take into consideration that the debate largely peaked mid-Covid when the world was in chaos and branding budgets went the way of a celebratory birthday party – with some exceptions in the central London area.

The other factor was, of course, that this is rugby, which by any metric is still a largely conservative sport where the administrative and commercial personnel aren’t often quite as dexterous as those who play it.

Exeter have done the right thing for themselves, their fans and most of all Native Americans. Now we can go back to appreciating what a good club Exeter are and what they bring to the game.

Champions Cup worked out perfectly

The European Champions Cup is always a nervy affair. The quality of rugby is high and the chances of your team taking an absolute pasting on any given weekend is unlike anything on offer in the domestic leagues. But Covid added another layer of fret.

This season it was possible to win or lose without even playing and worse than that you had the threat of being trapped overseas, at the drop of a hat, like an unfortunate diplomat from the turn of the century.

But, by some miracle, the knockout stages have turned out exactly as one would have hoped. Barring the odd team here and there, the last 16 is a list of the in-form sides in European rugby. Which is a great relief for everyone except the lawyers who would have cashed in had one of the big fish been swept up in Covid’s net.

Rugby is sometimes a game of luck and, on this occasion, the Champions Cup got the bounce of the ball.

Kicks in the 22 no longer a big risk

There was a time when kicking the ball in the opposition’s 22 was as risky as licking a door handle in 2020. But this season things have changed. The goal-line restart, as an outcome for not grounding the ball, has meant that try-line graft is not quite as rewarding as it once was.

The ability to stress a goal-line defence with repeated carries and the resulting scrums has diminished, leaving some teams struggling at what was once a core piece of the/their game – Exeter being a great example. All of which has meant that the chip kick through/over the top, or the kick-pass, is nowhere near the risk it was.

November’s fixtures saw stacks of attacking kicks and not just with a penalty advantage underway. Is a short chip kick really any lower a percentage play than ten-plus heavy carries? Is a kick-pass into a one-on-one defensive match-up, on the touchline, much riskier than two passes across the blitz?

The benefits of a short, sharp risk aren’t just in the percentages. It also saves massive amounts of energy, especially for your pack. Repeated pick-and-goes drain more energy than a five-bedroom, with an office, during the recent energy hike. Attacking kicks are no longer risks.

Scotland have a once-in-a-generation squad

This column has a reputation for bad predictions and unfortunate outcomes. The following paragraphs of praise may result in Scotland not only finishing last in the Six Nations but also all of the squad upping sticks and moving to the NRL. But it is hard to ignore the list of players that they now have.

If you’re under 45, most Scotland squads have been competitive-ish, but never dominant. They’ve had at least half-a-dozen standout players, with the gaps filled by players who weren’t exactly eating up too much budget in your fantasy team.

That is no longer the case. Running your finger down the squad list is no longer punctuated with ‘Mehs’, but ‘Ooos’. The change can be summed up by naming just two players. Hamish Watson and Rory Darge.

Watson is one of the best back-row forwards in the world, with a weight to power ratio that rivals a dung beetle. That may not seem like a very favorable comparison, but if it were the size of a 100kg man, a dung beetle would benchpress 114,000kg.

That some people are even suggesting Darge should start instead of Watson tells you all you need to know about Darge and the Scotland squad – in case you haven’t seen much of Darge, he’s red hot.

Add to that a proper tight five and more quality centres than Scotland have had since the game went pro, and they have a chance to do some damage. The only problem is that France also have a once-in-a-generation squad, and both England and Ireland also have enough depth to require breathing apparatus.

This Six Nations is going to be epic.

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