Black & White: The Paul Williams Column

Adam Redmond
13 September 2018

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Beginning this week, Paul Williams delivers his first ‘Black & White’ column as he takes a look around the world of the Guinness PRO14. Known to many supporters for his contributions to Rugby World, his obsession for the game and his notorious tennis elbow, Paul will bring his unique takes on rugby to ahead of each round. With no grey areas, entertainment and enlightenment are assured, but be careful, you might actually learn something too! For more make sure to follow him on Twitter  @thepaulwilliams

Scarlets Show a Different Side

We’re all used to seeing the Scarlets in their finery. The rugby they play is very couture, hand-made shoes and a 10-grand Swiss watch. But the manner in which they beat Leinster, in Round 2, showed a very different outfit. This was the Scarlets in their gardening clothes, covered in muck, and shovelling three tonnes of Irish hardcore by the wheelbarrow. It’s easy to understand why the Scarlets made a very clear and deliberate change in tactics.

In recent seasons, the Scarlets have tried to beat Leinster by playing around them or trying to offload through the back of them, and on occasions, it hasn’t worked. To beat Leinster consistently, you must be able to compete at the set-piece, on the deck, and in the collisions. And that’s exactly what the Scarlets did.

Uncharacteristically, the Scarlets only made eight clean breaks, four offloads and carried the ball for 330 metres. But these key performance indicators were replaced by far more important numbers – especially when playing Leinster. The Scarlets had a 100% completion at the scrum, lineout and with the kicking tee. They controlled possession and territory with 54% and 56% respectively – figures that few achieve against the European Champions. This isn’t to say that there weren’t glimpses of creativity, because there were.

Hadleigh Parkes made his trademark line-breaks, finished with a reliability of pass that the manufacturers of the aforementioned Swiss watch would be proud of. But this game wasn’t about the Scarlets’ backs; it was about the forwards. And in that regard, Ken Owens, Jake Ball and James Davies proved that the Scarlets can compete with the best, upfront. Well played by both teams – it was a pleasure to watch.

Benetton are so Much More Than a Banana Skin

Benetton Rugby have always been viewed as a tricky away match. An opposition that can trip you up in certain conditions. The Guinness PRO14’s banana skin, if you will. But as their performance against Cardiff Blues proved, they are so much more than that. This season they’re like a medieval man-trap. The 27-25 victory wasn’t an erratic result created by some freakish interceptions, or lucky bounces, it was a wonderfully balanced game-plan, and it caused Cardiff Blues numerous defensive problems.

A 100% completion at the scrum and 91% at the lineout gave Benetton a reliable platform from which they executed sizable line-breaks in midfield. Benetton’s desire to handle the ball in midfield meant that kicking was rarely an option that they used. They kicked the ball just 19 times in 80 minutes and made 16 line-breaks – more breaks than any other team in round two.

The fact that they made more line-breaks than anyone else in the league really shouldn’t be overlooked. There are some very skilled forwards and backs in the league, with many teams set up to create through the middle – to out ‘line-break’ them all is significant. Add to this Tommaso Allen’s touchline conversion to seal the game, and you have a team that can compete for the whole season. Well played, Benetton.

Henry Pyrgos does a Cipriani

The first two weeks of the English Premiership saw Danny Cipriani execute two beautiful passes. The debate as to whether Cipriani’s or Finn Russell’s pass, for Scotland, was the best in recent memory continues on Twitter. Henry Pyrgos clearly saw the debate on social media and decided to throw his name into the hashtag.

There are mothers with new-born children, who when asked which was more beautiful, would pick Pyrgos’ pass against Ulster. The scrum-half took out four Ulster defenders with one ball. It was gorgeous. As the pass flew over them, they may as well have been airbrushed from the image, such was their inability to affect the outcome. We’ve seen some immaculate passes in the Rugby Championship, the Top 14 and the English Premiership, over the past fortnight – Pyrgos’ pass is right up there.

Counter-rucks aren’t just a vanity project

We’re all used to seeing forwards counter-rucking. It’s often the result of a forward being cleaned-out of the ruck, having his ego deflated, and then trying to re-inflate that said ego by charging back into a well-guarded ruck, but to no avail. But when done properly, the counter-ruck is gloriously effective as we saw from the Isuzu Southern Kings in Week 2.

For a counter-ruck to be effective, it requires two players, not one. With two players re-hitting the ruck, it allows one to make the first hit and the second to power into the space over the ball. The tactic is particularly effective in modern rugby, where the need for scrum-halves having to set pods can take upwards of 10 seconds.

That’s plenty of time to send another couple of 17st bowling balls back into the skittles, and that’s exactly what the Southern Kings did to the Dragons. The Southern Kings may have lost the game, but they made some big gains at the ruck – something that they will need as the season progresses.

Guinness PRO14 Looking Meaty

There’s always much gnashing of teeth and shaking of fists when rugby changes broadcasters, but the Guinness PRO14’s move has undoubtedly been beneficial. Everyone will have their gripes and their tweaks, but the league looks impressive on one dedicated channel. Of course, there are still games featured on other channels, but to have the whole Championship essentially based in one place gives the fixtures gravitas.

Previously, the Championship has felt like tapas. Little delicious morsels, all in bitesize chunks, but annoyingly served on different plates. That is no more. You need only look at your TV planner to realise how much easier it is to watch every game. The Championship is now a less patatas bravas, deep-fried squid and few bits of olive bread, and more a 28oz T-bone steak.

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