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
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