Five things we learnt in rugby – September
A legendary Lion-bite, Sean O'Brien's verbal volley, the Premiership's American experiment and the Cheetahs proving a point, are all covered
Can’t blame any outside half for wanting to leave Wales
September saw Dan Biggar confirm his move to Northampton. It’s a move that is as well renumerated as it is understandable. Being an outside half in Wales can be grim. It is arguably the most scrutinized occupation in Wales – way above the role of even Wales’ First Minister. Despite Dan Biggar’s largely positive recognition over the past three seasons, it hasn’t always been thus. You don’t need to delve too far back in the memory bank to recall Biggar being booed at an Osprey’s kit launch, by his own supporters. Being born in 1977, it is a situation that has affected every outside half that I have seen play for Wales. Only after their career are most Welsh outside halves appreciated.
Even Stephen Jones and Neil Jenkins, who are now regarded as Welsh legends, were widely derided by the Welsh rugby public – ‘Wellies’ was the cruel name given to Stephen Jones who is by far the best Welsh outside half of the modern era and who is now creating a backline at the Scarlets that the Welsh team should aspire to. Rhys Priestland, who is currently excelling at Bath, was the most recent victim of the Welsh ‘goldfish bowl’. While we’re at it, the ‘goldfish bowl’ is a term that vastly underestimates the acidity with which the Welsh public can, on occasion, treat its players – a ‘septic tank full of Great White Sharks that can survive in liquid faeces’ is maybe a more accurate description. The lure and riches of the English Premiership will of course have ranked high on Biggar’s priority list, but leaving the shoals of apex predators swimming in poop will also have been a consideration.
Sean O’Brien ‘speaking out’ validates supporter’s opinions
Sean O’Brien’s criticism of Warren Gatland and Rob Howley certainly divided opinion. Half believing that what goes on tour stays on tour, the other supporting an employee’s right to criticise his boss. One benefit of players ‘speaking out’ is that it can validate long-held opinions of supporters. Often the ‘you haven’t played the game’ card is used as a stick to batter those who haven’t played test rugby when voicing an opinion. An ethos which at its extreme can lead to a closed shop of ex-professionals sometimes failing to publicly criticise those who are deserving of it.
This is a situation that has certainly been felt in Wales with regards to the Welsh coaching setup. Long have supporters criticised ‘Warrenball’ only to be told that ‘Warrenball’ doesn’t exist at all and that it is a figment of their knowledge-less imaginations. However, when Sean O’Brien highlights over-training and a lack of direction from the Lions’ backs’ coach it does at least make supporters feel reassured that they do understand the game and a right to have an opinion. The more players that speak out, the better.
The Cheetahs prove the doubters wrong
The inclusion of the South African teams in the Pro 14 led to much hand wringing. The quality of those teams bringing further scowls and shaking of heads. However, the Cheetahs last two performances will certainly have put half of that debate to bed. The Cheetahs have won three on the bounce, a good run of form by any measure. But the fact that two of those victories came against Leinster and the Ospreys, who are both Celtic League/ Pro 12/ Pro 14 royalty, means that the Bloemfontein outfit are not merely in the league as a SARU moth ball measure, they are top six contenders.
The Cheetahs have totalled 10 tries in their past two games and perhaps most impressively, reduced Leinster to a tackle completion of 74% – which is very low for a team of Leinster’s pedigree. It is also worth remembering that the Cheetahs have achieved this with a big chunk of their squad still committed to the Currie Cup, South Africa’s domestic competition. Whether the South African inclusion works long term remains to be seen, but the quality of the Cheetahs is no longer an issue.
The USA experiment was a success, regardless
Saracens v Newcastle Falcons was largely derided in both the traditional media and social space. And whilst the game wasn’t a sell-out, nowhere near in fact, the experiment should be regarded as a success. A success of creative thinking that rugby needs more than ever. In a claustrophobic sporting market place where rugby is struggling to break-even, let alone make a profit (you need only look at Saracens’ P+L for evidence) rugby’s administrators need to take more risks, not less.
The Saracens v Newcastle Falcons game was never about 16th September 2018, it was about 16th September 2028, where with enough graft, and a fair wind, the Premiership’s teams will be able to fill the 18,500 capacity Talen Energy Stadium and hopefully sign lucrative TV deals in the USA. A long-term plan to increase revenue streams via expansion certainly seems like a more prudent option than forcing players into an 11-month season. It is surely only a matter of time before Premiership Rugby not only demand that the entire Six Nations be played during the halftime breaks of Premiership fixtures, but extend the Gregorian calendar so that they can fit in more games – ‘Prember’, a month jammed in between September and October month, could be just around the corner.
Scott Baldwin gets bitten by a Lion
At first glance, one could be forgiven for thinking that Alun-Wyn Jones lost the plot in an Ospreys’ scrum and took a chunk out of Scott Baldwin’s rear. But it’s more surreal than that. During the Osprey’s visit to South Africa, where they played the Cheetahs, the squad visited a Lion enclosure. Having already stroked a Lioness, as did some of his teammates, with no adverse reaction from the animal, Baldwin moved onto the male and experienced something that few do – having a Lion hanging off their arm. Baldwin would be the first to admit that it was stupid.
But as true as that is, he has now taken his place at the top table of legendary Welsh off-field antics. A table where Andy Powell sits proudly. Not only has Baldwin guaranteed a post rugby career on the after-dinner circuit, he could spark a fantastic meme that could benefit charity. Much like the ‘ice-bucket challenge’, except in this instance Pro 14 players when touring South Africa have to do something dangerous to a deadly animal. Rob Evans, I nominate you to kick a hippo in the nuts. I jest of course.