Winging it Posted about 10 years ago

The Hurricanes victory over the Crusaders at the weekend was not a triumph of strategy, but of wing play. The match could indeed provide a very good coaching manual on what to do and what not to do as a winger. 26 of the Hurricanes 29 points came about because of the overwhelming superiority of their wings.

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Let’s start by praising the Hurricanes boys, Julian Savea and Alapati Leuia. The two Canes tries scored in the second half were created by the outside drift, not a skill seen so often these days. The fact that both Savea and Leuia caught out their opposite number on the drift suggests that it is a coached move.

Early in the second half Savea had men inside. He waited for scrum-half TJ Perenara to prepare his pass, at which moment Tuitavake, the Crusaders right wing, was caught ball watching.

Savea drifted two yards towards the touchline and was gone before Tuitavake could recover. An expertly played chip ahead – I think Savea may just have the most improved set of skills I have ever seen at the top level – took out Israel Dagg and Savea’s pace did the rest.

Late in the game, with the Canes behind, Leuia realised that Johnny McNicholl had pushed up too far on an inside defensive line. Leuia checked and sidestepped to the outside, so that when Ardie Savea’s pass arrived, Leuia had already beaten his man. The rest of the 60 yards finish was power, pace and instinct.

Julian Savea may just be becoming the closest thing to Jonah Lomu we have seen. In the first half he bumped off Kieran Read, no mean feat, and drew in three other tacklers in setting up the Canes first try. A 40 metre kick return was also reminiscent of the old wrecking ball.

There are signs that Savea has worked and worked on his hands, once the weakness of his game. His one-handed pick up of Blade Thomson’s inside pass was a joy and should have been rewarded with a further try. If the TMO could not recognise that Thompson’s body shape and hand position meant that the initial delivery of the ball was backwards, then you wonder how he was ever appointed to such a job.

The Crusaders left wing Johnny McNicholl received notices because of the two tries he scored in the match, but any rugby player with a bit of pace and reasonable hands would have finished those moves. Crusaders’ fans are more engaged by McNicholl’s repeated offensive and defensive frailties.

A poor pass initiated the turnover possession that led to the Canes first try. The Canes targeted McNicholl with a couple of kick-offs and his lateral run across the 22 led to a turnover and the Canes second try.
A short McNicholl kick after a mark, gave the Canes field position from which Savea scored the third. McNicholl also got involved in a ruck he should have stayed out of, allowing Barrett to exploit his wing and almost set up another try. And of course McNicholl’s poor defensive line led to the winning score. Even the attempts to use him as a first receiver ended with the unfortunate lad being rammed backwards.

The 23-year-old drew attention for his try scoring in the ITM Cup, but his defensive weaknesses have been brutally exposed at the higher level. McNicholl’s continued selection points to all not being well in the Crusaders game analysis and perhaps a stubborn weakness in the head coach, as in “I won’t be proved wrong.”

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Crusaders fans will look back fondly at 2011 and remember a backline of Ellis, Carter, Maitland, SBW, Freuan, Guildford and Dagg. They took the Sharks apart in the earthquake fundraiser at Twickenham. But now Guildford can’t even get a seat on the bus, while Savea has become known as the Bus and replaced him as an All Black.

As a coaching guide on what to do and what not to do on the wing, Friday night’s game between the Crusaders and the Canes could hardly be bettered.

Is Savea the best in the world? Who else is up there in terms of wing play? Comments below…

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Mark Reason has been a sports journalist for over 25 years. He currently works for Fairfax Media and will also be part of the Telegraph's World Cup team and a regular panellist on Radio New Zealand during the World Cup. He has covered every Rugby World Cup since 1991, the 2000 and 2008 Olympics, over 40 golf major championships, the FA Cup final, the Epsom Derby and a lot of other stuff he can't remember. Mark emigrated to New Zealand in 2010 having spent over 20 years covering sport for the Telegraph and Sunday Times in Britain.

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