IN A sport as dependent on synergy and the collective will as rugby, it is amazing to see, time and again, the influence that two or three key players can have over an entire team, even at the highest level.
Watching Ireland last week without Jamie Heaslip and Jonny Sexton, it was difficult to escape the feeling that this was a very different green team to the one that has dominated European rugby over the past year and a half. The snap and precision that Sexton brings to his backline wasn’t quite there and, while guys like Jordi Murphy and Devin Toner carried very well, there was a sense that the definitive focal point that Heaslip provides was lacking.
These two are special players, and almost indivisible from Ireland’s collective persona, just as Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell have been for the past decade and more.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND MOBILE APPS
Wales, meanwhile, have their own big players and personalities. Lots of them in fact.
What has been interesting to watch since their renaissance a decade ago is the way the team’s identity has gradually morphed. Looking at it from the outside, it seemed that Wales almost stumbled upon a new, joyful style of open, uninhibited rugby during the 2003 World Cup in their matches against New Zealand and England. As if by magic, this new game and the confidence it seemed to create within the players lifted Wales from Six Nations mid-table plodders to title contenders. The players who most embodied the success that followed over the subsequent years were Shane and Martyn Williams. Steppers, off-loaders and creators, always willing to try things, to look for space or the extra pass.
Magical as much of Wales’ play was in the middle part of the 2000s, they still struggled for consistency, a trait which came to a head at the 2007 World Cup in being knocked out at the group stage by Fiji. Which is when Warren Gatland stepped in. Under his regime, the Welsh almost immediately added an extra layer of steel and physicality to their game
Their play has since been punctuated by many moments of individual brilliance by the likes of the Williamses, George North, and Jonathan Davies but, overall, the emphasis has increasingly been on bashing the opposition into submission via relentless intensity and the players’ God and gym-given athleticism.
These days, you would have to say that the Welsh team’s approach is epitomised by North, Jamie Roberts and Alun Wyn Jones. Huge, freakishly good athletes, and also incredibly gifted rugby players, but in a very different way to Shane Williams.
At its best, and against the right team, Wales’s gameplan (I’m not about to jump on the bandwagon and call it Warrenball. Ah… looks like I just did), can be unstoppable. Over the gain-line, quick ball, round the corner, repeat ad nauseam until one of your strike runners finds himself in a bit of space and can do some damage. Unfortunately for us, Scotland are one of the teams who have really struggled to deal with this approach and last year’s game was only the latest and worst in a sequence of howkings.
The last time I played against Wales, in 2009, every one of their breakdowns seemed to produce lightning quick ball, making it impossible to set our defence, and we were chasing shadows from the first kick-off. (Meanwhile, Mike Phillips, charming fellow, found the time to tell me that I was embarrassingly crap. Hurtful, but essentially true).
So, struggling to deal with their power game has been a theme for some time. But looking at this Scotland team, it is difficult to see many signs of frailty – particularly in midfield, where Wales have traditionally done much of the damage against us.
You never want to put the mockers on anyone, but I back Finn Russell, Alex Dunbar and Mark Bennett to, at the very least, cope with whatever Wales throw at them.
It is men like these who will be essential to forging a new, distinctive identity for Scottish rugby, something that has maybe been lacking for some time. Of course, after last weekend, we are left with another disappointing opening day defeat, but nobody could fault the attitude of the Scottish players in the face of France’s inexhaustible parade of behemoths. And, barring a few set-piece issues and playing a little too much rugby in their own half, Scotland got a lot of things right in terms of their performance.
But what got rugby fans most excited, whether Scottish or otherwise (even Sir Clive was at it) was the élan with which the boys approached the match. Which brings me back to my original point – a Scotland team with the flair of Stuart Hogg, the insouciant skill of Russell and the presence and industriousness of Jonny Gray as its defining characteristics doesn’t sound too bad. Whatever it is these young, positive, homegrown players currently have going for them (and I can’t put my finger on it, as I never had it), you just hope they manage to hang on to it through the many and various vicissitudes of playing for Scotland.