Now­ell can cut loose as new law read­ing sets the winger free

➤ The frozen by­stander on the flanks is no more when a speeded-up game de­mands get­ting breaks from rucks

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - Austin Healey

Be­fore rugby re­turned from its lock­down hia­tus, the pic­ture was bleak for wings. They vir­tu­ally saw the ball only when chas­ing or re­ceiv­ing kicks, and scrums used to last so long that when the ball even­tu­ally came out to them, they were ei­ther so bored that they could not be both­ered, or they would pull a ham­string be­cause they had seized up dur­ing the vast pe­ri­ods of in­ac­tiv­ity.

The statis­tics were say­ing that wings did not see the ball as much as they used to – chas­ing or re­ceiv­ing kicks aside. There was an air of school-level rugby about pro­fes­sional wing play: ar­riv­ing at a new school and be­com­ing ex­cited to find out that you were go­ing to play on the wing and score lots of tries but, in ac­tual fact, all you got was hy­pother­mia.

Schoolkids were shoved out on the wing and they never touched the ball for the en­tire game. That seemed to be where the pro­fes­sional game was head­ing.

You used to read about tight­head props, open­side flankers, scrumhalve­s and fly-halves as rugby’s most valu­able po­si­tions and, as a wing, you would ar­rive at a game in shock­ing con­di­tions, and you could sense the for­wards were look­ing over you and think­ing: “You haven’t got much value to add to­day.” In that sit­u­a­tion, you pretty much knew you were not go­ing to re­ceive a pass all day.

But that is chang­ing; the new law in­ter­pre­ta­tions have flipped that on its head.

Wings are be­gin­ning to adapt. The stats, pre-lock­down, sug­gested that you were go­ing to have a pretty bor­ing life on the flanks. These new in­ter­pre­ta­tions, while also help­ing the jack­ler to spoil par­ties at the break­down, have also brought that crazy winger back.

The game now has be­come about the speed of the ball, and how quickly you can get it away from the ruck. With how fast the game is be­com­ing, wings should be ask­ing them­selves: “Can my nine get to ev­ery break­down on their own?” I do not think they can. And if you are roam­ing and you can get your­self into po­si­tion swiftly, then you could be­come that ex­tra nine – or even an ex­tra 10.

Mike Sle­men, the for­mer Eng­land wing who sadly passed away in July, gave me the best piece of ad­vice I ever re­ceived from a coach – other than “Stop f------- about, Austin” which, in fair­ness, I got from ev­ery­one. He said: “Never, ever wait for the ball to come to you – go and find it, find work.”

His words have never been more salient. Think about where the game is go­ing. It is go­ing into hy­per-speed with mini rucks. As a wing, now, you are just as likely to make a break run­ning off the shoul­der of your scrum-half from a third-phase, su­per-fast ruck, as you are stay­ing out wide in the tra­di­tional open spa­ces.

The stats and the “per­ceived” role of the wing do not have to con­trol your ca­reer – you can smash them to pieces. Jack Now­ell, for ex­am­ple, has com­pletely gone against the grain; so much so that Ed­die Jones was talk­ing about him play­ing as a pos­si­ble flanker.

A wing should bring a mix­ture of both ex­cite­ment and ef­fec­tive­ness, and there is no bet­ter ex­po­nent of that than Ch­es­lin Kolbe, one of the world’s most ex­hil­a­rat­ing play­ers. How of­ten do you think Kolbe and Now­ell have been left stranded on the wing fear­ing frost­bite? Prob­a­bly never – and you will see tomorrow, when Now­ell’s Ex­eter and Kolbe’s Toulouse meet in the Cham­pi­ons Cup semi-fi­nals, how much a busy wing can of­fer a team.

Sir Clive Wood­ward, when he was coach­ing Eng­land, once told me he wanted me to play like foot­baller Gunter Net­zer, who fea­tured in mid­field for West Ger­many in the 1970s and was al­lowed to do what­ever he wanted. If you are on the blind­side wing, you should be al­lowed to do what­ever you want – giv­ing your­self free­dom of move­ment will only ever af­fect the team in a pos­i­tive man­ner.

While Sara­cens showed last Satur­day that their ap­proach to wing play – in­tense kick chas­ing and fault­less de­fence – can be ef­fec­tive, how much longer will that last? If I were a 19-year-old academy wing and Sara­cens were beg­ging for me to sign just to chase kicks, catch high balls, and tackle, with the di­rec­tion the game is head­ing I would not even read the con­tract.

If you are a wing and you think all you have to do is stand out wide, then you are go­ing to be that 11-year-old schoolkid catch­ing a cold – like ev­ery­one was nine months ago.

Fleet of foot: Jack Now­ell is rev­el­ling in his all-ac­tion role at Ex­eter

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