Five things we learnt about rugby – July
It maybe the off-season but there's still plenty to debate including the Six Nations calendar, the maligned Pro12, Super Rugby and the irresistible rise of Ardie Savea
The Six Nations must embrace reform
July saw the Rugby Football Union dousing cold water on speculation that the Six Nations could be moved from its existing place in the calendar. The reasons for this are understandable, as existing broadcast deals favour a section of the sporting year where there is little competition. However, the short term commercial deals in place mustn’t be allowed to stall the long term interests of northern hemisphere rugby. There’s not a sport in the world which cannibalises its club and test game like northern hemisphere rugby. It is no coincidence that the Southern Hemisphere test teams have dominated union when you consider that their club and international seasons have so little overlap.
Barring a short break, when the Southern Hemisphere test teams host the northern hemisphere’s ‘summer tours’, they play Super Rugby, then they play test rugby – the players who don’t make the test grade then play in domestic competitions. Whereas the northern hemisphere players are forced to exist in an environment which is tantamount to sporting tapas – where players are constantly switching between club and country – doing neither justice long-term. Nudging the Six Nations to early April and bringing the club season forward into the gap left by the Six Nations, would revolutionise northern hemisphere rugby. Arguably the most important decision since Webb Ellis picked the ball up in the first place.
Sam Cane has got a problem on his hands
Sam Cane is the heir apparent to Richie McCaw. New Zealand rugby had pencilled Sam Cane in for the All Blacks’ seven shirt many seasons ago. He was first selected in the All Blacks at the age of 20 and has already captained the greatest team in the sport. It’s almost as if Sam Cane was anointed to be the next Kiwi openside from the moment Mrs Cane asked Mr Cane if he fancied an early night. However, Sam Cane’s succession has recently reached a major bump in the road in the form of Ardie Savea.
Savea’s performances in July, as they have been all season, were awesome. His 80 minutes in the Super Rugby semi-final was one of the top performances from any openside, anywhere in the world this year – Savea carried 80 metres and beat six defenders. But don’t let those numbers lead you to believing that Savea is a showpony – he’s every inch a mangled warhorse. Alongside his impressive attacking display against the Chiefs he also made 19 tackles and dominated the deck – a deck which also had the heir apparent, Sam Cane, scurrying around on hit. Sam Cane already has 34 test caps, but the next few won’t be the ‘walk-in’ that many expected.
You DON’T need to earn the right to go wide
‘Earning the right to go wide’ is one of the most common of rugby’s modern lexicon – so much so that it is rumoured to be the next of Melania Trump’s plagiarism targets. The problem is that the statement is no longer based on fact. That isn’t quite true. It is still true of the northern hemisphere where direct running, and an obsession with contact means that overlaps have to be earned at the end of multiple attritional phases; but not in the southern hemisphere. The Hurricanes, Lions, Chiefs and Highlanders go wide whenever they want, from wherever they want.
They have squads of players who don’t rely on straight running lines and instead have skillsets that can be launched equally as well during the first phase as during the 22nd phase. A rugby ethos where backs like Beauden Barratt, Damien McKenzie, Elton Jantjes, Ben Smith, Aaron Smith, Lima Sapoaga and Faf de Klerk fuse with skilful forwards like Ardie Savea and Daniel Pryor – the result is next gen rugby. The Chiefs made 18 line breaks in their Super Rugby quarter final against the Stormers – you simply can’t make 18 lines breaks by waiting for the ‘right’ to go wide.
Wasps – the Fantasy backline
We’re all partial to a rugby management simulation, or fantasy league, where we get to live out our rugby dream – the heady desire of assembling a backline of near impossible speed and skill. Well, as July showed, Dai Young is doing it for real. He doesn’t have to log into his account and download a fantasy rugby app, he merely walks into Wasps HQ.
Next season Young will have Kurtley Beale, Danny Cipriani, Elliot Daly, Kyle Eastmond, Joe Simpson, Christian Wade, and Frank Halai. A backline with as much speed, lateral movement, and unpredictability as the name of the club would suggest. Some will point to the potential lack of prowess in the Wasps pack for next season; and they may be right. However, as a backline, to find more perfect wasps next season you’ll have to head to the National History Museum.
The Pro 12 needs positivity.
It is no secret that the Pro 12 is the weakest of the major European Leagues. You don’t even need to dig into the Pro 12 teams’ recent records in European competition to see that. A mere perusal of this summer’s transfer market will show you that the Pro 12 is the ‘own brand’ league when compared to the Fortnum & Masons which are the Top 14 and Aviva Premiership. However, whilst the current situation in which the Pro 12 finds itself is not exactly ideal, the responses to any options which are aimed at improving the predicament have been equally depressing. July saw derision aimed at the bringing in of teams from the USA.
Many argued that the inability to travel to away fixtures, in the USA, is unacceptable. But supporters of the Pro 12 would be wise to leave this myopic view of the league behind. TV revenue is the most important income stream in rugby. A club can sell as many shirts, pasties, season tickets, beer and fill as many ‘away buses’ as it likes; but it won’t make a dent in the financial resources required to make the league competitive again. The Pro 12 are looking at radical solutions because radical solutions are required; an understanding of that is what’s required from Pro 12 supporters and its wider stakeholders.