Rugby’s talking points from May
Ben Smith, the success of the Scarlets and Exeter Chiefs, King Louis Picamoles' departure and the return to form of Jonathan Davies are all covered
Northampton Saints can’t feel hard done by over Picamoles
The poaching of Louis Picamoles to Montpellier has resulted in some rather aggressive teeth-grinding in English rugby. But it is worth remembering that Scarlets’ supporters sloshed that same dental debris around their mouths when George North was taken to Franklin’s Gardens.
Northampton Saints have received a sizeable transfer fee for Picamoles, which compensates for the two remaining contracted years, and many will argue that a structured transfer market is a logical progression for rugby – which still remains a very new professional sport. Whether rugby follows football in that regard remains to be seen, but one thing remains certain – you can’t complain when teams with bigger budgets rough you up, when you have done it to others.
Scarlets resurrect Welsh regional rugby
Despite starting the season having retained the bulk of their international talent and attracted the likes of Johnny McNicholl, nobody expected the Scarlets to win the Pro 12. Indeed, the season started with most of Wayne Pivac’s social media mentions being suffixed with “out”. Ironically, the word ‘out’ became the very definition of the Scarlets’ play and resulted in some of the best rugby played by any team in the world this season. The Scarlets’ desire to move the ball outside the narrow channels is what differentiated their play from that of the competition. The majority of the Scarlets’ squad have been comfortable passing the ball, at pace, from anywhere on the pitch.
Be it the increasingly impressive distribution of Rob Evans at loose head, the hugely impressive skillset of Tadhg Beirne or the all-court game of James Davies, the Scarlets forwards have been equally skilled as the backs – which is praise indeed given the performances of Scott Williams, Jon Davies and Johnny McNicholl. All of which came into fruition in a very rare six try demolition of Munster, in Dublin. To beat Munster is rare. To beat Munster in Ireland is rarer. To beat Munster, in a Guinness Pro 12 final, in Ireland is blue. To beat Munster, in a Guinness Pro 12 final, in Dublin, having scored six tries really is steak tartare. Doff of the cap, Scarlets.
Exeter. All that is good about club rugby rewarded
Professional club rugby has some unsightly aspects. Whether it’s salary caps, allegations of cheating on the touchlines or the poaching of players, elite club rugby has a smattering of clubs who have transgressed. There is however one club who has no such record. A club who stays within the laws, the budgets and largely shuns superstar signings in favour of players who buy into an almost amateur rugby ethos.
That club is Exeter and May saw them rewarded with the highest honour in English club rugby. It capped what has been a tremendous journey for Exeter. Yes, they have money now, but they have largely chosen to ‘shop local’, or buy ‘own brand’, unlike than some of the ‘Harrods’ shoppers who dominate the French and English rugby. Exeter remain the blueprint for professional rugby and the envy of all.
Jon Davies. A miraculous change in form
May saw Jonathan Davies’ move from becoming a British and Irish Lions’ outsider to the British and Irish Lions’ outside-centre. It was a marked upturn in form. His performance in the final against Munster was remarkable and capped a six-week swing in performance change that transformed him from a player who was always looking to set up rucks, into a player who is now looking to set his backline on fire. Gone were the obvious steps back inside and in came a subtlety of passing and offloading rarely seen from Davies.
His new found passing range has also created a lot more space for his running game. Whereas defenders used to just set their feet and wait for the thump of his sizeable shoulders, in May they weren’t sure what his intention was – the result was unstable defenders unable to cope with Jon Davies’ industrial handoff when he chose to deploy it. Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones deserve massive credit for changing Jon Davies’ style of play. Let’s hope he is allowed to continue in that vein in New Zealand.
Ben Smith remains the best fullback in New Zealand
May saw the return of Ben Smith to Super Rugby and pour a giant pale of cold Dunedin water over the question of who will play at fullback for the All Blacks in June. Many, due to Ben Smith’s recent injury, had been hypothesising as to who would replace him as the AB’s fullback – and with the stunning form of Jordie Barrett and Damian McKenzie who could blame them? However, Smith’s performance against the Waratahs was everything that Steve Hansen could have wished.
Even after a sizeable injury layoff, Ben Smith remains the Tippex of rugby – he simply doesn’t do mistakes and often has an amazing ability to undo the mistakes of other players. There simply isn’t another player in the world, weighing under 14st 7lbs, who breaks as many tackles or makes as many yards in contact. And that’s without discussing his ability to avoid contact all together. The Kiwis have some tremendous talent coming though in their back three, but Smith is still the mild-mannered guv’nor.