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Five of rugby’s big talking points from April

Too hot to handle: Jonathan Joseph offers Warren Gatland a point-of-difference Rugby World

The player drain hurting Australia and South Africa, Jonathan Joseph's inclusion in the Lions squad, Sonny Bill Williams' religious stance and are warm-ups to vigorous? They're all covered...


European player drain killing Australian and South African rugby

The fact that wage inflation in the Top 14 and Aviva Premiership is affecting domestic rugby in other countries isn’t exactly news. Welsh, Scottish and Irish rugby is still going through it now. However, it has been brought into sharper focus given the state in which South African and Australian Super Rugby finds itself. Despite an entertaining game between the Reds and Waratahs, April saw both Bok and Wallaby franchises hit rock bottom – the Crusaders annihilation of the Stormers being the lowlight.

Tough times: Aussie and South African franchises are struggling with a player drain Rugby World
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The reason that both nations are struggling to fill their squads is that most of their best players are being plucked by European clubs, and to a lesser extent Japan clubs. For the player drain to have affected Australia is understandable. It is a small market with a relatively small commercial draw when compared to ‘Aussie Rules’ and the NRL. But for the impact to have been so great on South Africa is a worry. Rugby’s free market and the flaunting of salary caps is distorting and damaging club rugby globally. If left unchecked, a game with already limited appeal and market share will result in 20 countries feeding two leagues with scant regard for anyone else.

Jonathan Joseph’s Lions selection was vital

April saw some contentious calls in the British and Irish Lions’ squad. Especially if you’re a Scotland supporter. There was a moment where it looked as though the building of a wall wouldn’t first occur on the Mexican border, but on the Scottish – built by the Scots themselves. However, the most important selection was undoubtedly Jonathan Joseph. This isn’t to say that Joseph will start in the test teams; however his selection does indicate that the Lions coaches are aware that they can’t beat the All Blacks with crash ball centres alone.

Fast feet: Jonathan Joseph's footwork will give the Lions midfield an extra dimension Rugby World

Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies are of course big men and certainly fall into the crash ball bracket. But Joseph’s inclusion at least tips the balance of centres towards ballers and not purely maulers. With Joseph, the Lions will have the option to play a more expansive game under Gatland this summer, something that Wales haven’t in recent seasons.

Sonny Bill Williams drops an advertising clanger

Sonny Bill Williams has had a difficult April. His form for the Blues (NZ) has been poor – as you would expect given his lengthy injury lay off and sevens sabbatical. But by far his biggest mistake in April was his decision not to wear sponsorship for any brands which charge financial interest. This is an understandable element of his Muslim faith and one which we all respect, but by handling it in the manner in which he did created hundreds of thousands of dollars of free advertising – the exact opposite of his intentions.

Big draw: Sonny Bill Williams makes headlines all around the world Rugby World

If the sponsor in question could have asked their advertising agency to create a stunt with Sonny Bill Williams at the core, it would have been that. It’s the same with adverts that get banned, their removal merely increases attention – it is most advertising creatives’ dream to get a high profile ad banned. If SBW doesn’t make the All Blacks, and fancies yet another career change, maybe he can take become Creative Director in one of NZ’s big agencies.

Let’s referee quick tap penalties properly

Modern defences are so well-drilled that literally the only way to permeate them could be with a drill. A Black & Decker Hammer Drill, through the thigh, seems the only way to stop Justin Tipuric from tackling this season. But if we can’t use power-tools to create holes in defences, then we must use the whistle better – particularly when it comes to defences retreating from quick tap penalties.

Pressure game: During the Munster v Saracens game, the tap pen wasn't policed tightly Rugby World

The quick tap penalty is one of the few opportunities to take advantage of jumbled defensive lines and mismatches in the modern game. The quick-tap penalty presents a rare chance for backs to mismatch against retreating forwards and vice-versa. However, without the defence genuinely retreating ten metres, or being penalised for not, the opportunity is lost. As April proved games such as Saracens v Munster, where defence dominate, need all the help they can to loosen the defensive chokehold – properly policing the quick-tap could help.

Player warm ups are too intense

This column has never purported to know anything about strength and conditioning and this point will undoubtedly irritate the strength and conditioning community. But the pre-game warm ups that pro players endure seem way too extreme. Admittedly, not one instance in April will prove this point in isolation, it’s more of an accumulative observation over many seasons, but many front row and lock forwards seem to breathing very heavily before they’ve even pulled off the training top and donned the match shirt.

Steady on: Is the pre-match warm-up, well, a bit tiring? Rugby World

It seems even more bizarre that players are thrashed in this way, for upwards of 30 minutes, when the majority of front row forwards are replaced at 55 minutes. Surely it is better to save their energy for the game and play them until the 70th minute, or even the full 80? We all understand the need for players to warm up, to a degree, but if they look like they’ve just outrun a zombie hoard then surely something is wrong.

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