Black & White: The Paul Williams Column

Adam Redmond
11 October 2018

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Each game week Paul Williams ‘Black & White’ column will take a look around the world of the Guinness PRO14. Known 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 pro14rugby.org. With no grey areas, entertainment and enlightenment are assured. For more make sure to follow him on Twitter  @thepaulwilliams

Sean O’Brien Needs a Rebrand

Being a professional rugby player with the same name as another giant in the game is never easy. Jon Davies of the Scarlets understands this plight perfectly. When the comparisons with the dual code master Jonathan Davies became a problem, he became known as JD2 and latterly ‘Fox’. Connacht’s Sean O’Brien is playing so well at the moment, that the same problem awaits him. Standing out as a flanker in Ireland is hard enough as it is.

Along with New Zealand, and Wales, Ireland is absolutely dripping with quality sixes and sevens. And even with his injuries, Sean O’Brien, of Leinster, remains one of the global game’s backrow monsters. But despite these obstacles, Connacht’s SOB (for American readers, that does not mean son of a bitch) has been one of the leading performers in the Championship. And against Ulster last Friday night, he did it again: 18 tackles and none missed – this tells you that he is doing his core role perfectly.

But it is his rangy step and ability to make 20-yard breaks that have caught our eye. Much like New Zealand’s Shannon Frizzell and Vaea Fafita, he has the ability to step outside the traditional role of a six and use his pace to scorch through the midfield channels. Whether SOB2 reaches the levels of SOB1 is a big ask. But he is certainly making a name for himself.


Mata Fits the ‘Bill’ as a Proper No 8

You need only look at the global club game to see how important versatile backrow forwards have become. It doesn’t just stop at the club game either. David Pocock switches between six, seven and eight with the same ease that Michael Cheika switches between expletives.  It is in this world of 6’1” interchangeable opensides and blindsides, a number eight like Edinburgh’s Viliame Mata stands out. Genuinely 6’5” tall and a shade over 18-stone, Mata makes the difficult carries look easy.

In a similar manner to Cardiff Blues’ Nick Williams, he makes the five-yard carries look like he’s getting milk from the fridge. Against the Toyota Cheetahs, he carried for 113m from 20 carries. That’s the number you’d expect to see from a wing or fullback.

 

At one point, he threw off Tian Schoeman, the Cheetahs outside-half, like he was, well, a shoe. In early autumn, big heavy number eights may seem like a luxury. But as the weather degenerates and the pitches churn up, players who can make five yards, every time, become worth their weight in gold. Which, in the current market, works out at about £3,385,192.02.


Use your head. Avoid the head.

Following their game with the Ospreys, the Scarlets’ Keiron Fonotia has been cited and banned for leading with the elbow. It’s a sensible decision and one that reflects a global move towards safer playing conditions. But despite this, there has been an outcry. An unnecessary outcry.

All players know the current interpretations of the laws. Unless you’re handing-off, any contact with the head of an opposition player will result in the minimum of a penalty. Whilst any contact with the head has always been punished in rugby, in the current climate players need to imagine that the opposition don’t even have heads.

Just think of it like playing against 15 Anne Boleyns.


Wingin’ it for the Weekend

 

Round 6 in the Guinness PRO14 was a weekend for wingers and one which saw some very reassuring signs for the quality of the Championship. If your wings are scoring regularly, all the aspects inside those players are functioning. Leinster’s James Lowe, Cardiff Blues’ Owen Lane and the Cheetahs’ Rabs Maxwane all had immaculate games.

Six tries between them and a combined 238m carried. But these weren’t all easy outside breaks against flimsy, unconnected defensive lines. All three have the ability to dance, but also destroy. They demonstrated that they can not only finish the pretty-boy tries, but also the butt-ugly opportunities that require quad-burning leg drives. Well played, gentlemen.


Derbies that Delivered!

When it comes to derby matches, no-one wants to see 50-point blow outs. That defeats the objective. When local derbies become uncompetitive, the ‘local’ element ceases to exist. And the stronger team has to look further afield in which to find a ‘local’ competitor.

The Liverpool vs Everton derby game being a classic example in football. Thankfully, that doesn’t exist in the Guinness PRO14, as this weekend’s fixtures proved.

All four of the Welsh and Irish derby games finished within eight points – even the Ulster Connacht game which featured a red card in the 41st minute.

All six teams had a tackle completion above 80%, with Leinster, Ospreys both completing over 90% of their tackles. The Ospreys had a remarkable tackle completion of 93%, which would see a test level defence coach rewarded with a pay rise, let alone a club or regional coach. The return fixtures will hopefully be equally close.


Try Time: Dragons First-Phase Strike

 

There were some fantastic tries scored during week six of the Guininess PRO14. And it may surprise a few, but the Dragons try, in the 19th minute against the Cardiff Blues gets the nod. We’re all becoming accustomed to seeing tries scored from counter attacks. Such is the difficulty of transitioning from having possession of the ball to defending post-turnover, that modern teams make counter-attack tries exciting, but very common.

Making scoring from first phase, when every defender is in exactly the right position, the greatest prize. And that’s exactly what the Dragons did. A simple lineout-catch was followed by a simpler pass that made Adam Warren dance into midfield with the reckless of abandon of Theresa May running through a corn field.

Although I doubt that Theresa May could have executed the offload that saw Warren put Josh Lewis into the space, which then allowed Jarred Rosser to pour over the try-line. There’s nothing quite like a try from first phase. It’s rugby at its purest.


All Eyes On: Europe

Europe’s showpiece club tournaments start this week. And there is nothing better. We’re all used to viewing the Guinness PRO14, English Premiership and Top 14 in isolation. In safe zones. At arm’s length. Like individual exhibits in a zoo. But the Champions’ and Challenge Cup are when the cages are opened, and the animals are allowed to mix. It’s wonderfully Darwinian.

Only the best, the very best, survive.

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