The Best Scrum Half Around?

England's Next Scrum Half

Joe Simpson or Dan Robson?

After impressing in the Autumn Internationals with a couple of well timed dummies, and a perfectly timed quick tap and go penalty it seems Ben Youngs had cemented his claim to the England scrum half shirt. But I’d like to suggest that all is not as secure as it initially seems.

So far for the RBS Six Nations Youngs has started at scrum half against France and Wales, and Danny Care has come off the bench. And it is at this point that we have seen a noticeable step up in the performance of the team. In both games we have looked to be struggling to put the opposition away for the first three quarters of the game, only to secure it in the last fifteen minutes. This, at least in my opinion, is at least partly due to Youngs.  Care brings something Youngs simply does not have.  Whether that is flair, speed, an ability to read the game, or simply faster distribution he is obviously better at driving the team than Youngs is.

Care is clearly faster at getting the ball back into play at the breakdown, even if Youngs box kicks are marginally better as a rule. But, and this is a very big but indeed, there are two scrum halves who could do a much better job, and luckily for Wasps, they both play for us.

Joe Simpson was all set to finally improve on his single solitary cap last year in the Six Nations, but an ankle injury against Leinster that required surgery put paid to any chances he had. He recovered and was all set to take part in the GB Rugby Sevens squad at the Olympics when a second major injury dashed his hopes yet again.

However the injuries themselves have not stopped him from showing his incredible skill. His ability to read the field is brilliant, and his experience give him an edge few others have. He has astonishing pace, even by the standards of the backline at Wasps, and his box kicking is certainly way ahead of either Youngs or Care.

However he isn’t a shoe in at Wasps for a starting spot at scrum half, because of our other freakish talent. Dan Robson.

Dan probably isn’t quite as quick in a straight footrace as Joe, but the speed of his distribution is lightning fast. He might not have the experience Joe has, but his natural flair as a footballer more than makes up for it. His vision, and ability to make the right call under the greatest of pressure was exactly what kept Wasps in the European Challenge Cup, with a fantastic quick tap and go of his own leading to a match winning try in the dying moments of the game against Toulouse.

So Eddie, if you are reading this (and let’s face it why wouldn’t you be?) and you want a Scrum Half who has solid skills with the ball, the ability to read the match, and has something special about him, then please drop Youngs and come and take a look at one of our boys?

Or even better, get Joe starting, and then bring Dan on for the last 20 minutes to finish the game and close it out.

The Trouble With Elliot Daly

Elliot Daly

England and Wasps’ Elliot Daly

At Wasps we’ve long known Elliot Daly was a genius on the field.  His ability to beat defenders, his outside arc with the afterburners on, his side step, and his offloads have been the source of much admiration for years.  And his uncanny ability to slot over place kicks from further away than anyone would believe possible is the stuff of legend.  So when he finally made it into the England set up no-one was at all surprised.

What is a surprise however is how he seems to flit from one position to another without seeming to cause himself any problems at all.  Center?  No problem.  Wing? A doddle.  Even packing down in the scrum at one stage. But despite that everyone seems to be saying that it is at fullback with 15 on his shirt that he will eventually find his home.

The Wasps discussion forums are full of debates about what his best position is, and therefore where we at Wasps, and Eddie Jones’s England should actually be playing him.  But the fact that no-one can agree shows one thing perfectly clearly.

Elliot Daly is a player who can make his natural abilities with the ball fit in any number of positions.  The only thing that matters is that he does indeed play.  And after his astonishing try saving chase followed almost immediately by a match winning try of his own against Wales it seems that that is not going to be up for debate for some time.  

But that does tend to leave those charged with putting names on a teamsheet with a bit of a headache.  

Where the hell do you actually play him?  

It seems to me at least that the current England approach is to fill the rest of the back line and then to slot Elliot Daly into whichever position is left.  Though whatever you think of such an approach it is hard to claim it isn’t working for England.  Whether it will work quite so well for Wasps it is hard to say, but as we’re currently sitting top of the Premiership it’s hard to argue.

I strongly suspect that one of the other things that makes him such a perfect fit for Jones’s England is his natural abrasiveness. The very aspect of his character that had him sent off and further cited for abusing an official during a particularly torrid match for Wasps is the thing that Jones seems to seek out in his players.  He likes players who care, and who translate that into action on the pitch.  Players who will bring their aggression with them onto the pitch.  Hartley, Brown, Farrell, Care, are all prime examples of this, and it is a mould Elliot Daly fits perfectly.

If only there was a position that fitted him quite as well.

Should Christian Wade play for England?

Christian Wade

Wasps Christian Wade

There is no denying that Wasps have been the team for watch for quite a while recently. Their utter domination of teams like Saracens, Toulon, and Leinster as well as the dramatic European Champions Cup quarter final win over Exeter with a last minute conversion from Jimmy Gopperth who gets more impressive every week. And so you can fully expect that Eddie Jones and Warren Gatland have been watching with interest. Amongst the fans the feeling is that Christian Wade has been massively unfairly treated by being repeatedly missed out from the EPS squad, and so I thought it would be interesting to compare his statistics with those of wingers within the squad. Namely Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell, and Chris Ashton.

Now before I let loose with the numbers there are a few points I have to make. Firstly that these statistics are not fair comparisons. They are drawn from the last five games the wingers in question played, and of course for some of them these will be domestic games, for others Internationals. It also does not take things like injuries into account, or amount of time on the pitch. Nor the quality of their opponents. But putting these things aside they do make interesting reading.

The general consensus amongst non-Wasps fans is that Christian Wade is very fast, but has terrible defence. This is strengthened by being the ostensible reason Lancaster didn’t have him in the squad for the majority of his tenure. But is it true?

Should Christian Wade Play for England?

If we look at nothing but tackles then Wade made 19 tackles and missed 6. A success rate of 76%.

In comparison Nowell made 35 tackles and missed 9, a success rate of 79%, Watson made 13 and missed 3 – 81% success rate, and Ashton made 22 and missed 3 – 88%.

If defence is what you are picking a winger on then Wade does indeed have the worst rate. But not by an awful lot, and there is a massive difference between the work rate of Nowell who racked up 44 attempted tackles in five games, and Watson’s 16. So on the face of it this isn’t a particularly useful stat. It doesn’t for example take into consideration all the times a Winger may have been so far out of position they didn’t even bother attempting a tackle.

Let’s look at some more offensive stats.

During those five games Christian Wade made 2 turnovers, and scored 3 tries. Nowell 5 turnovers and 1 try, Watson 2 turnovers and 3 tries, and Ashton no turnovers at all, but 4 tries.

If try scoring is your measure, then Ashton is in the lead, with Nowell last. If it is turnovers then it is the exact opposite.

Perhaps the most useful figures would be to look at the number of carries a wing makes?

Wade – 29

Nowell – 48

Watson – 44

Ashton – 30

Again it is pretty clear that the work rate of the two incumbents is far and above the other two we are looking at. But again how relevant is work? Surely it is success that counts. Instead of carries we ought to look at metres made? Maybe even metres made per game or per carry.

This is where Christian Wade starts to shine.

Over his last five games he made 260m with the ball in hand, which comes to 9m per carry, and 52m per game.

Nowell made 323m, which averages as 6.7m per carry and 64.6m per game. Watson 314m overall, 7.1m per carry, and 62.8m per game. And Ashton 188m overall with 6.3 metres per carry, and 37.6 metres per game.

Wade is far and away the best if we are using metres per carry, but falls way behind Watson and Nowell in metres per game. And so if there is anything that is letting him down, it would seem to be his work rate. The obvious question this does raise however is why is Chris Ashton in the EPS and Christian Wade not if these figures are in any way relevant. Wade makes significantly more metres every tie he gets the ball, and in every game he plays than Ashton.

Take all of this with a pinch of salt, it is a tiny sample, and we should be wary about using it to prove anything much. Adding in another game alters the stats pretty significantly, as does taking one away. I have also not looked at penalty count, or Yellow and red cards (yes Watson I am looking at you).

The other thing to bear in mind, is that these stats have been a week or so in the collecting, and so do not include this weekend’s game assuming the players in question were even playing.

Why what Joe Marler said was Racist, but why the IRB was wrong to punish him for it

This site is designed to be about Wasps Rugby, and so this post is a bit of a departure. But I feel it is an important subject that affects us all, and so here are my thoughts.

Why what Joe Marler said was racist, but why the IRB was wrong to punish him for it.

Joe Marler and Samson Lee

Clearly no offense taken

There is a huge amount of discussion currently on the punishment Joe Marler, Harlequins and England Prop has received for calling Samson Lee “Gypsy Boy” during the Six Nations game between England and Wales. I’d like to explain why it is that that comment was indeed inappropriate and racist.

The first point is that the comment was clearly made to provoke Lee. It has been written off as simple “banter” by numerous people, but that in itself makes it clear that Marler was trying to get under Lee’s skin and to generate a response of some kind. So we know that it was designed to be at least a little irritating and potentially upsetting when it was said. But was it racist?

As Lee is a member of the traveller community, a group of people who have a separate identity from the mainstream communities in England and Wales it was certainly referencing his cultural heritage, even if we do not consider being a traveller to be a separate race. And so while it may or may not fit the exact specific defintion of racism as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, it is certainly close enough to fit. But the next question we need to look at is whether referencing someone’s race or heritage is actually insulting.

There are a number of arguments being put forward by Rugby fans who don’t think that what Joe Marler said was worthy of criticism. I’m going to look at them individually.

“Lee wasn’t insulted, so why should we be?”

We have no way of knowing whether this is true or not. It likely is, but I don’t think that is relevant. Even if Lee was insulted by Joe Marler’s comment he is highly unlikely to admit it. He is a top level international rugby player and letting your opposition know that they can potentially gain an edge over you by insulting you is never going to happen. Even if he cried himself to sleep that night (and I stress that I doubt this happened) he would never admit it to the general public, as it would simply be setting himself up for more insulting behaviour. But even if he wasn’t personally offended that doesn’t really matter. What matters with racist behaviour is that it directed at someone because of their race or heritage, and therefore targets everyone of that particular race or heritage. Lee may well not have been offended, but perhaps the young boy who idolises Lee and for the first time ever saw someone from his own background playing rugby at the highest level was offended. Perhaps that young boy will never play rugby now. And so if the comment was indeed insulting then it doesn’t matter whether Lee took personal offense.

“I’m not insulted by being called English”

The implication here is that calling Lee a Gypsy is simply a description, and that as such, it isn’t offensive. This is the subtlest, and the most damaging type of thinking, but sadly seems to be the most common.

Firstly we have already shown that Joe Marler’s comment was designed to get a rise from Lee, why say it otherwise? So if it was indeed just a description how could it get a rise?  

Let me try to show you how the context of an insult can be important.

I have two friends, one who has done very well for himself. He did well at school, got a good job, and worked hard. He put money away, and inherited more, and is now in an enviable position. He has a lovely house and drives an Aston Martin. I have another friend who has struggled all his life. He always seemed to be on the wrong end of luck, and ended up declaring himself backrupt. He fought and struggled to get enough money to buy himself a car, it was an old Peugeot 205, rusty and prone to breaking down. But he was proud of it, he’d worked hard to get it, and against all the odds he made it happen.

If I said to my friends that their car was crap one of them would likely laugh it off as banter, the other may well be offended.

The fact is that the comment itself is not the damaging thing. It is the context the comment is made in. To a person who has always had lovely cars, saying their car is crap is water off a duck’s back. But to someone who has had to fight for years to get an unreliable, rusty, old, car and for the first time has managed to get a car they can call their own, it is much much more likely to cause upset.

The traveller community has long been derided as somehow worth less than the normal traditional community in the UK. A quick google search shows words like “sub-human”, “scum”, “in-bred” used to define them. Calling someone a Gypsy is an insult, it carries with it all the connotations that the word has picked up over decades, or even centuries of abuse and derision. To Lee it was a pointed reminder that he was from a lesser group. That he was not of the same worth as Marler. The addition of the word “boy” serves to prove that. Calling a grown man “boy” is always an attempt to demean them. “Gypsy Boy” is an attempt to show Lee he is inferior in every way.

The sad fact is, that a white middle class English man from a mainstream background is in no position to decide if a comment made to another person about their heritage is worthy of causing insult. I’m purposefully stopping short of saying “check your privelege”, but context is key. In this, and every other aspect of potential racism. If you, like me, have grown up in a world where being a white, English, male from a mainstream community, is the best start you could possibly have, and you are part of that group, then it is hard to see things from a different perspective.  Important, but hard.

“It’s Political Correctness gone mad”

This is one I find the most annoying. Political correctness is a good thing in the main. It is exactly that that has stopped things like the Conservative Party’s campaign for the Smethwick seat in the general election of 1964 being considered appropriate – google it if you don’t know. I suspect you’ll be surprised.

I’d like to think that as a society we all start from the basic position of wanting to treat others with respect, and to be treated with respect ourselves. And so if some of us have to not use certain words or phrases is that really a big sacrifice to make? I’d suggest it isn’t.

I do not understand the mentality of someone who, after being told that something they have said or done has potentially caused offense, loudly argues for their right to keep doing or saying it.

How does it negatively impact on your life if professional rugby players are not allowed to insult each other in a certain way? Is your enjoyment of the game based purely on the fact that potentially racist insults are allowed? Does the game become less enjoyable if things you dismiss as “banter” are removed? Are beautiful running lines, passes, offloads, and tries not what we care about?  Is watching a perfectly timed tackle, or big hit from a running back row forward not enjoyable if we aren’t allowed to also racially abuse the people who are playing?

Racism has massively decreased in day to day life, and that is a good thing. But it has not been eradicated, and that is a bad thing. It is not political correctness gone mad to try to actually eradicate it. And if along the way one or two behaviours that were less insulting than others fall by the wayside too so what?

“Gypsy” may well not be as insulting as “Nigger”, and “Paki” and countless other terms I heard growing up in the 70s, but that does not mean any one of them are acceptable. They are not, and if you are one of the minority who think your right to use such words is more important than the right of others not to be insulted based on their genetic lineage then I suggest that you take a long hard look at your opinions.

Why the IRB was wrong

Rugby prides itself on being based on values of respect and “proper” behaviour. Players are still punished for speaking disrespectfully to the officials (not enough in my opinion), and so that is exactly why the 6N should have punished Joe Marler for what was clearly a lapse in judgement.

But 6 Nations Rugby did not punish Joe Marler. They looked at the situation, saw that he had apologised during the game, saw that he was seemingly contrite and remorseful, and let it go. It was wrong for them to do that, but much as during the game the referee’s word is law and cannot be disputed, that is where it should have stopped.

The IRB have undermined the entire process of discipline in the game. They did it for the right reasons, as the RFU were wrong to not act. But that does not mean they should do so.

Next Season Without Charles Piutau

Charles Piutau

Charles Piutau celebrates after scoring aginst Leicester Tigers

It’s hard to know whether Wasps have been extremely lucky, or pulled an absolute blinder by signing Charles Piutau. But one thing is clear, that he has kick-started our recovery in a way that only a massively talented, multi-capped All Black could. However he is only officially with us for this season. He signed for Ulster some time ago, and it looks likely that he will stick to that contract, and I don’t think anyone would blame him if he did.

He has shown himself not only to be a fantastic player (we already knew that), but a genuinely decent, honourable, and forthright person. So if he decides to stick to his word and go to Ulster then good for him. I’m sure Wasps would want to keep him, and would do everything in their power to make it happen, but unlike a lot of people, including some big names in the world of rugby I don’t think it would be the biggest disaster if he does go.

Firstly, contracts are temporary. There is nothing to say that he wouldn’t want to come back to us after a couple of years in Northern Ireland. But even if he doesn’t choose to come back to Wasps he has shown quite conclusively that we don’t actually need him.

I know that sounds like a bit of a turnaround, so bear with me. I’ll try to explain.

Wasps without Charles Piutau

Firstly, while individual brilliance is extremely valuable in the team, and Charles Piutau has that in spades, it is not the be all and end all of performance. We have had brilliant players for years. Wade, Daly, Varndell, Launchbury, Masi, Miller, Gopperth, Jackson, Simpson, Robson, Hughes, Johnson, and many many more have shown themselves to be able to do amazing things. But what this season has taught us is that it is when we play together as a team that we do the best.

If you’ve spent any time reading this blog, or even just watching Wasps play then you will see quite clearly that our success is built on the players playing together. Quick ball, offloads, dummy runners, breakdown support, clever lines, and ultimately communication and co-ordination are what have taken us from a mid table team, to one pushing for Silverware. And that does not go away when we lose one talented player (even if we lose his equally effective big brother too).

Secondly what Charles Piutau has taught us is that skilled players who can fit into the team in multiple positions are worth their weight in gold. He has played at Fullback, Wing, and recently in the Centre with equal success. Already we have Miller who can play at 15, and also cover 10. We have Gopperth who is a great 10, but also has the attributes for 12. We have Jackson who has played internationally at both 10 and 15. We have Daly who can play 13 or 15, and assuming his recovery is sound we have Leiua who can play Centre or Wing. We have a squad of players with a high level of talent and skill who can shuffle around to fill whatever position they are needed in.

The Piutau brothers have been a revelation, especially working together in the centre, but would we be any worse off with Leiua at 12 and Daly at 13? How about with Cipriani at 10, Gopperth at 12 and Leiua at 13? And that is without even mentioning how good Ben Jacobs was before his injury, or Brendan Macken who came from the depths of the squad to play his part and score against Quins.

What has made Charles Piutau such a success is not how good he is as an individual player, but how well he has fitted into the team. How quickly he adapted to the way the game is played not only in the Northern Hemisphere, but at Wasps.

I’ll be very sad to see him go if he does. And I’d be thrilled to see him stay (or even return). But I am not desperately worried about the state of the squad without him. And that’s without mentioning the possibilities of Kurtley Beale…