Black & White: The Paul Williams Column

Adam Redmond
10 January 2019

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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


Pack Must Catch Up with Unplayable Leinster

 

Other than being on Donald Trump’s PR team, preparing a squad to face Leinster is right up there on the world’s trickiest jobs list. Just ask Ulster.
Admittedly, Ulster selected a second-string team, but then Leinster picked four Grand Slam winners led by Rob Kearney and surrounding them with their latest crop of ‘before they were famous’ and still stuck 40 points on them. Leinster don’t have weak spots. When an opposition coach approaches the strategy ‘white-board’, to prepare his team for the threat of Leinster, he probably just writes the words ‘F’ING EVERYTHING’.

Against Ulster, they amassed 20 phase sets like most teams put together five. They had a penalty try from a scrum, Sean Cronin scored two through the middle and they beat 32 two defenders in total – a number that you would expect from the Hurricanes playing the Sunwolves, not Leinster v Ulster.

At one point the sheer number of attacking threats from Leinster seemed to overwhelm Ulster to the point where their brains stopped functioning and five defenders failed to lay a meaningful finger on the stunning Conor O’Brien. Many have argued that Leinster’s dominance is bad for the Guinness PRO14, quite the opposite.

It’s a chance for others to catch up, not Leinster to be dragged back.


It’s Not ‘just’ Benetton

 

There’s a complacency associated with playing Benetton Rugby this season. One which is particularly evident when teams travel to Treviso. The word Benetton is often prefixed with ‘only’ or ‘just’. The problem is that when someone says, ‘it’s only Benetton’, five minutes after the final whistle they’re often lamenting a season damaging loss in Italy.

It happened to Glasgow Warriors in Round 13 and, although I’m not suggesting that they didn’t take Benetton seriously, the result proves that this season, as with last, Benetton are no longer a five-win-a-season squad. They’ve already won seven games and are third in conference B – level on points with third-placed Edinburgh. They have a higher points total than the Scarlets, Ulster and Cardiff Blues – teams who many would regard as having better pedigrees.

Benetton require a rebrand in the eyes of opposition supporters. They’re no longer cannon fodder, they’re outfiring some of the big guns.


No Scrum, No Chance

Over the past decade the scrum has been the unruly child of rugby. Something that refuses to be controlled and has the potential to play-up and ruin any occasion. A decade ago rugby was dominated by scrum penalties. The ability to win the ‘hit’ led to the scrum not being a means of restarting a game, but a means of winning penalties and dominating games with a decent goalkicking percentage – 2009 probably being the lowest point. But that is no longer the case.

Changes to engagement have led to a genuine contest once again, where prolonged and consistent technique and power is rewarded and not merely the lottery of the initial hit. And whilst many teams have seemingly ditched the importance of the scrum, others have embraced it and are currently using it to dominate the opposition.

You need only look at the Dragons’ struggle against the Scarlets’ front row and Edinburgh’s demolition of the Isuzu Southern Kings to realise how important scrums are – more importantly how important the tight-head is. A consistently solid scrum is no longer just a route to cheap kicks at goal, but also to a yellow card and a chance to not only force a weaker front row option onto the field, but often the removal of a backrow or winger at the next scrum.

Props that can throw ‘miss-twos’ and sidestep are a joy to watch, but that is a secondary skill. Unless you can handle 450kg along your spine, then your team is in trouble.


Aaron Wainwright is Bossing it

Elite backs often shine in their late teens and early twenties – George North and Reiko Ioane being relevant examples. They’re often at their fastest and are competing against some of the smaller defenders on the field. But to dominate a game as a 21-year backrow forward is rare.

That is where Aaron Wainwright currently finds himself. A situation made all the more remarkable considering the struggling, although improving, Dragons’ team in which he finds himself. Against the Scarlets, he once again delivered a performance becoming of a 28-year-old, 50-cap Welsh player. His domination of the tackle area was immaculate.

 

But perhaps more impressive than his actual power and body position was his timing. He didn’t just seem to arrive at the breakdown and then muscle the opposition out of the way, he seemed to remove them without breaking stride. With Sam Warburton retiring, all eyes have moved towards who could be Wales’ next openside.

But it appears that whilst the openside debate is open, the long-term blindside debate appears solved. Well played Aaron – absolutely fantastic.


Female Referees are Just Referees

Joy Neville was holding the whistle for Benetton Rugby v Glasgow Warriors. The fact that a woman refereed a game isn’t new, it has been happening for two or three seasons. The difference being that there is no longer an outcry.

Three years ago, a woman referring a game of elite men’s rugby would have had had many alerting their church elders, sharpening the pitchforks and igniting the torches. But that is no longer the case and it is fantastic for the game.

There was no press release associated with Neville refereeing Glasgow’s visit to Italy, there was no pre-match debate and there was no post-match Twitter war – a rarity indeed. Female referees are no longer, they are now just referees. They are a part of the game and as positive a sign as England’s women being awarded long-term professional contracts in the 15-person game.

But perhaps the best comment on the situation came from my nine-year-old daughter, who has been watching rugby since her umbilical cord was cut. I said, “Look Chloe, there’s a female referee”, she said “Oh yeah, didn’t she ref the other week?”.

Whilst on occasion it may appear that rugby is moving backwards, when it comes to gender equality, it is flying over the gainline.

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