The ‘old’ Full Backs are Looking New
The past five seasons have seen a move towards more creative full backs being selected. With the unsightly rugby ping-pong years of 2009-2012 behind us, aerial dominance took a back seat and more creative players became desirable.
Players like Ben Smith and Israel Folau showed us what could be achieved from deep and that there was more to fullback play than catching, running 10m, and slinging up another bomb on the halfway line. But this Guinness Six Nations has proved that being safe under the bomb and always being in position for the chip kick still matters. You need only look at the French back-three against England, to see that a poor full back can turn a talented back-three into a massive steaming ‘number two’.
On the flip side we have Rob Kearney, who had a magnificent performance against Scotland. He was near faultless in the air and rarely out of position. Joe Schmidt hinted that Kearney was rusty during the build up to the tournament – if he was, he has clearly taken the C-3PO route and had a long hot bath in a vat of WD40.
This week has also seen the return of Leigh Halfpenny to the Welsh squad after a long absence due to concussion. A more solid fullback you will not find. There are statues in Trafalgar square that have been out of position more than Halfpenny and his return to the Welsh squad will drastically alter Eddie Jones’ kicking tactics when they play in Cardiff. Whilst we all clamor for the creative, blistering, stepping fullbacks, test rugby often isn’t a place for that.
Guinness PRO14 Player of the week: Braam Steyn impresses for Italy
During the build up to Italy v Wales, the backrow debate focused mainly on Thomas Young playing on the openside and Josh Navidi switching to number eight. But whilst both Welsh backrow forwards played well, it was arguably Braam Steyn who stole the show – even in defeat.
It was a magnificent performance. The Benetton player was a triple threat against Wales. He made 20 tackles, missing just one, and carried for 24 valuable hard yards – in a game where Parisse managed just 16. But it was Steyn’s work in the lineout that was most impressive. He destroyed the Welsh lineout with a defensive jumping performance that even Peter O’Mahoney would be proud of.
His ability to ‘swim’ through the Welsh lineout maul was also hugely effective for a player who is just 6ft 4inches tall – effective maul ‘swimmers’ are usually over 6ft 6inch tall and are squid-like in their reach. Italy have a genuine chance of beating France this season, and if they do, Steyn will be key.
Finn Russell, Stunning
Owen Farrell undoubtedly delivered the finest outside-half display of the weekend. But if Farrell’s performance was near perfect, then Finn Russell’s was near poetic. Even though Scotland failed to consistently breakdown Ireland’s defence, the former Glasgow player was a joy to watch.
His intercept for Sam Johnson’s try was immaculate – he had beaten the defender before he had even taken the intercept. Having glided up the pitch, he was then tackled and executed the most perfect pop-pass that you will ever see. A pop-pass so memorable that it almost requires a new name. Russell didn’t pass the ball when laying on his side in a crumpled mess, he did it whilst lying flat on his back – it was a ‘turtle pass’.
Russell’s hands were fantastic and matched by a range of tactical kicks that whilst not being as punishing as Farrell’s, were as technically proficient. Finn Russell is beginning to look like the complete article and a ten that Scotland can build a backline around. Well played, Finn.
Wales win eleven on the bounce
Welsh rugby is a funny place sometimes. Not funny, ha-ha. Funny, give me a hand-grenade-pasty and a pint of polonium with an anthrax chaser. Wales beat Italy and are now eleven wins on the bounce. Yet discontent gently simmers.
Obviously, it wasn’t a great performance. And that is entirely the point. It wasn’t never going to be. If Warren Gatland wanted to stick 40 points on Italy, he would have sent his first team to Rome. If this was Warren Gatland’s last tournament, he would have sent fully tested combinations to ensure that he had the best chance of winning the championship, with bonus points, and the possibility of completing the Grandslam. But this wasn’t his last tournament, the Rugby World Cup is.
And now he has an idea of who is ready to play in Japan and who isn’t. The lineout collapse will have worried him greatly, particularly as it wasn’t clear where the problem was – it was a worrying mix of low throws and late lifts. Gatland will also be aware that he is light at scrum-half without Rhys Webb and that is a problem that can’t be easily resolved.
It may have been ugly, but it is possible to love/like/accept an ugly thing – three women have married Donald Trump, after all.
All eyes on – Super Rugby Season
It may seem weird that a column primarily based on the Guinness PRO14 would squander its word count on Super Rugby. But Super Rugby is not only the most creative league in the world, but it is also the league in which many stars from the Guinness PRO14 learned their trade.
The likes of Jonny McNichol, Rey Lee-lo, James Lowe etc all learned their skillsets in a league where passing and precision are appreciated over power alone. This weekend’s Guinness PRO14 fixtures has same big fixtures, but keep one eye on Super Rugby, because your team’s next big overseas signing could be playing.