It was a try filled weekend in the Aviva Premiership with some great passing and turns of speed on show. One of the highlights for me was the quick feet of an unlikely source, Quins’ prop Joe Marler.
The side step is a much admired skill in rugby but Marler’s display on Saturday served as a reminder that it is not the sole property of the Backs.
As the game develops and players in both packs become more physical, so the line is also blurred when it comes to the skill set each player must possess.
Coaches have drills for the two packs, combinations and individuals which look to build the more traditional skill sets for each position. Increasingly young players watching the pros want to try to be all things and there is a balance between getting a good grounding in the basics and encouraging flair.
While no one wants to see robots on the field playing prescripted moves, an individual looking to make an impression without concern for the team is equally unfulfilling to watch.
Marler is an experienced player at club and international level and while he displayed some silky skills he also put a shift, ensuring he fulfilled his positional skills, i.e. as a prop, Marler’s main focuses are on scrummaging, lineout lifting and hitting as many rucks as possible. Players wanting to ‘show off’ better ‘show up’ and display some real skill which benefits the team or they will quickly find their individual efforts mean nothing.
George North gets physical
It is good to compare Marler’s contribution with Saints new signing the Welsh winger George North. In the Gloucester v Northampton Saints match he also displayed some quick feet and a lightening turn of pace to collect the ball from deep inside his 22 and carry it to half way virtually untouched.
The Saints knew what they were getting with the 21 year old former Scarlet star in terms of his ball carrying and as he displayed in the 2nd Test for the Lions he is not adverse to carrying opponents. In a move that any forward would be proud of he picked up Israel Folau and charged at the opposition.
While picking up an opponent and using them as a battering ram is not something you’d expect of a Back (or any player!) nos 11-15 are racking up tackle stats and turnovers at the top level. Is this progression towards more physical backs an inevitable result of the professional era’s focus on the strength and conditioning of players to survive the hard hits in the modern game?
I recently wrote a piece for Rugby Mag on how rugby was in danger of overlooking the more diminutive backs players with technical skills in favour of the more physically powerful players. It’s also true that physical forwards should not be excluded from developing their passing and running game. Options in all parts of the field are to be encouraged.
Mixing it up
Mixing it up in practice is important. An understanding of how to play other positions, the skills involved and what they need from team mates helps a player understand their own place in the puzzle that bit better and you may find some strengths you didn’t know you had.
This is not about switching Marler to the wing or North to the Front Row mid game. There will always be specialist roles in the game where there is a position for everyone. However having a team with players who have a wide range of skills give you more options in scenarios and can help to turn a game around.
If Marler finds himself in the backline after a couple of phases of play, his basic skills of catching and passing come into play. If he passes, then his support skills come to the fore and he is either looking to get the ball back or to hit the ensuing ruck. Every player needs a wide range of skills to play rugby at the top level.
While the quick feet of Marler and North were great to see, neither of them carried the ball across the line. They helped gain vital metres, created momentum and contributed to the game but it was others who scored the points. They were part of a team and it is this message coaches at all levels look to reinforce with their players.
For the record, Marler’s team won and North’s team lost. There might be brief glory in supreme skill but ultimately it’s still the score line people remember and points that win championships.
Gavin Hickie, USA Rugby U20s Forwards Coach, is a former Ireland A & 7s, Leinster and Leicester rugby player now Head Coach of Dartmouth Rugby. He writes for RugbyMag.com and other publications when not coaching and blogging on lineoutcoach.com