Number 8 is Not a Utility Position
Modern elite rugby has become rather obsessed with the fusing of positions. It’s easy to see why. A lock who can play at six, a centre who can cover both inside and out, a full back who can play wing and a prop who can play both sides are a coach’s dream – which make the depth chart a far more pleasant read.
And on occasions, it can work. Josh Navidi and David Pocock are examples of players who fuse three roles. But when you watch a genuine eight take to the field, it makes you realise how unique they are. CJ Stander’s entrance, for Munster against Cardiff Blues was the perfect example. His impact was enormous – a try, one clean break, four defenders beaten, and 35 metres carried in 35 minutes.
"I thought our whole bench was really good tonight, it was a real 23-man effort."
Munster head coach Johann van Graan hails the contribution of Tadhg Beirne and CJ Stander from the bench after tonight's 45-21 victory over Blues at Irish Independent Park.#MUNvCBL #GuinnessPRO14 pic.twitter.com/NTpDTmboOu
— eir Sport (@eirSport) April 5, 2019
But whilst the carrying numbers were impressive, it was the explosiveness of the carries that really impressed. Stander, like all of the best number eights, seem are able to generate maximum force after just one step, whereas as other carriers require a three of four metre run-up to generate the sufficient physics.
Stander, like Vunipola and Nick Williams, have calves the size of an actual cow’s offspring which allows them to virtually always nullify the first tackle. Whilst modern rugby is desperately trying to turn every player into a ‘utility’, of sorts, number eight remains one of those positions that refuses to meld. They remain the prime beef in a world of turkey-ham.
Warriors Excel from 1 to 15
Glasgow Warriors’ performance against Ulster was immaculate and were it not for Benetton drawing against Leinster, it would have been the result of the Round 19. This was all-court rugby from Glasgow where the backs and forwards dominated – which isn’t always the case with Glasgow.
Warriors have such a talented backline that often their forwards don’t need to boss the gainline in order to get the result. But when Glasgow’s forwards own the floor, and the gainline, their backline becomes unplayable. The Fagerson brothers both had impressive games and delivered a threat level that even the Krays would have been proud of.
Zander completed 13 tackles at tighthead, which is a big number for someone who has such a low number on his shirt. Adam Hastings had arguably his finest game of the season and Tommy Seymour’s defence was ‘YouTube’ good. Add to that Kyle Steyn and Sam Johnson carrying for over 120m between them and you have the full picture of why Glasgow presented Ulster with a problem in every channel on the field.
Try-line ‘D’ is the New Game Changer
The past 14 days has seen two high-profile players get mugged behind the try-line. Luke Marshall was stripped of the ball against Glasgow, by the defensively immaculate Tommy Seymour. And the week before, defensive pressure contributed to Jacob Stockdale dropping the ball over the line. It is becoming clear that try-line defence will be the next major improvement in elite rugby and an area where small gains can make a big difference.
The fact that try-line defence is the next area to be passed through rugby’s toothcomb should come as no surprise. The major areas of the game went through this process over the past 20 years and the easy gains have already been made. Lineouts, scrums and defensive structures have improved immeasurably over the past two decades.
You need only compare a modern lineout to one in the 1980’s to see the efficiencies gained. A modern lineout moves like a £10,000 watch, a 1980’s lineout looks like one of those medieval street games where men chased a lump of cheese around the town square. Improving try-line defence should theoretically be quite easy because defenders don’t have to worry about the scorer passing or kicking. At its bluntest, the defender doesn’t even have to worry about the player, only the ball.
There’s no need to make a big hit, when a small direct hit on the ball will often do. This year’s World Cup will be the tournament where try-line defence will separate the best from the rest and it will be fascinating to watch.
Benetton are Doing it the Wonderfully Hard Way
For those who don’t regularly watch the Guinness PRO14, Benetton’s season could appear to be a fluke – a Leicester City, if you will. A one-off season where every bounce and intercept must have gone their way. Where the entire squad has meticulously avoided walking under ladders and never placed their Diadora trainers on the kitchen table. But that really isn’t the case.
Benetton have done it the hard, almost traditional way. As with their draw at Leinster, their success is built on the basics. They had a 100% scrum completion against Leinster and won five from six lineouts. They matched Leinster in their defensive completion with a respectable 88% of tackles made and dominated possession and territory with 63% and 68% respectively.
Benetton even managed to beat 36 defenders – that’s nine more than any other team in the Championship during Round 19. But by far the most impressive aspect of Benetton’s performance was that they won in the final minute. Most teams buckle against Leinster after 60 minutes. Even against Leinster’s second team, most squads are 14 points adrift by the time the ref puffs his cheeks for the last time.
The fact that Ratuva Tavuyara managed to brush off five defenders to score in the final play, and that Tommaso Allan managed to convert, shows that Benetton aren’t a 10-minute, 10-game, or 10-month fluke. They are tenacious and it is magical to watch.
One to Watch
Who else but Benetton. They play Munster at home. And whilst a few seasons ago this would have been lifeless with fixture, this season it is worthy of some heavy breathing. Benetton have a Guinness PRO14 Final Series spot within reach and currently they fear no team in the Championship, not even Munster. Bring on kick-off.
The Guinness PRO14 Final is one of the most entertaining games in the rugby calendar and takes place in Glasgow’s Celtic Park on May 25. Tickets start at just £25 for adults, £1 for kids. Visit www.pro14rugby.org/finaltickets