Benetton Do All But Win
Such has been the improvement at Benetton Treviso this season, that at times this column may have read like their superfan produced newsletter. But after their performance against Munster, it is fully justified. Before we dig into the stats, Benetton were one drop goal away from beating Munster, in Munster, in the Guinness PRO14 Play-Off game. Let that sink in.
This is a team that less than three seasons ago would have conceded 30 points at a minimum at Munster. And while they didn’t win, they dominated all the key performance indicators. Of course, leading the stats counts for nothing if you don’t win, but they do indicate that this is a team that has arguably improved more than any other in world rugby.
That’s not a misprint either, they did lead those stats for the entire game. Benetton led Munster in possession, territory, line-breaks, defenders beaten, offloads, defensive completion, rucks won and lineout completion.
They may have lost, but they put themselves in the position to win away at Munster. A position that few others in the European game have been in over the past decade – even the big boys. Well played Benetton and congratulations Munster.
How Sweet it is for Darren
Darren Sweetnam is one of those players who always delivers, but rarely takes delivery of the MOM award and the bottle of bubbly. However, his performance against Benetton, and all season, was exactly what Munster required and one that every successful teams requires.
He beat defenders (3), made a clean break and carried 50 yards, but it was the less glitzy aspects of wing play that Sweetnam got right against Benetton. His left foot step is strong, and it means that he rarely ends up near the touch line – where he can be dragged over the whitewash. He may not the biggest of wingers in modern rugby, but at 6ft 1inches and 14st 6lbs, he misses few tackles – he locked down every hit against Treviso.
But perhaps his most important contribution in the Benetton game is that he was always in the right position. During the first half, Sweetnam was up in so many Italians’ faces that it’s amazing he didn’t cause tooth decay. Well played, Darren.
Ulster and Connacht – ‘Knockout’ Rugby with a Difference
When we mention ‘knockout rugby’, we all know what we mean. It is often defined as rugby that is played with the intent of not losing the game, as opposed to winning it. But that was not the case with Ulster and Connacht in the second Guinness PRO14 14 Play-Off last weekend. This was knockout rugby in a very different sense.
This was ‘knockout’ in the same way as when you first laid eyes on Brad Pitt, Sofia Vergara, or if you’re me, Hadleigh Parkes throwing a miss. It was beautiful. The tempo of the game was as remarkable in the opening 20 minutes, as it was in the final 20. The ruck speed and intent to use that rapid ball created a rugby pattern more reminiscent of a throw-away Super Rugby match, not a winner-takes-all northern Hemisphere game.
Nick Timoney was tremendous at six and were you to add another six onto his shirt, he wouldn’t have looked out of place – he finished his try like a 12. This isn’t to say that the game was entirely frivolous. It wasn’t. Marcell Coetzee delivered another shift that would make a worker ant look lethargic and Iain Henderson was immaculate, as usual.
Congratulations to Ulster, but well played to both.
Welsh Regions Find the Secret Door
It’s easy to see why Welsh regional supporters can, at times, get a little angry and prone to a social media rant. This season, as with many others, has been tricky both off and on the field. But to complain about the situation that the Ospreys, Scarlets and Cardiff Blues find themselves at the end of the season is ludicrous.
Yes, it is confusing not knowing who will qualify for what in Europe. Yes, it is annoying not knowing the fixture dates and when to book trains etc. However, some of the regions are fortunate to find themselves in this position at all. This is rugby’s equivalent of Alice in Wonderland, a secret door to a place that you didn’t even know existed a month ago.
Embrace it and be happy, this is one of the best things to happen to Welsh regional rugby all season.
Drop Goals Matter from this Point On
Drop goals rarely get a mention before April. But as we saw with Benetton, they really matter in knockout rugby. During the start of the season, and even at the mid-point, drop goals are seen as a low percentage option. It’s a tricky skill, involving a moving player, hitting a moving ball, with the whole of the opposition moving towards you.
Which when compared to a shot at goal, where all of the factors are largely stationary, seems risky when the points haul is the same. However, drop goals win big games and the evidence is all over YouTube. It seems weird that in a game where every other aspect is tattooed onto a player’s retina, that drop goals appear so chaotic and unrehearsed. We are now witnessing box-kicks being caught by the defending team, with a wall of players standing in front of them, making the challenge almost impossible.
Yet it seems that there is no such protection for the player taking the drop goal. Why isn’t there a bank of players standing in front of kicker to make the charge down less likely? A drop goal is all that separated Benetton from beating Munster and it will likely win a massive game in the World Cup. It requires more attention.