Recently by Paul Williams
Warren Gatland is set to announce his RBS 6 nation's squad on Wednesday 18th January at the Millennium Stadium and there is a growing clamor for Ashley Beck to take one of the centre berths. It's easy to see why. Beck's recent performances for the Ospreys are worthy of test rugby and this week they led Sean Holley, the Ospreys coach, to comment that "Ashley has to be knocking on the door for Welsh honours".
But these aren't the pushy comments of a regional coach trying to squeeze one of his players into contention for a Welsh cap (although some of the Osprey backline could do with a little positive propaganda), Beck would provide Gatland with a skillset that neither Jamie Roberts, Jon Davies or Scott Williams possess.
Ashley Beck is a rarity in Welsh rugby, indeed world rugby. The modern game has bred a generation of one dimensional centres whose primary focus is the gain-line and getting over it. The problem is that whilst many of these behemoths are efficient in getting over the gain-line, once they arrive there they lack the distribution skills to link with their support runners.
But Beck is different. In a game where 'destructive' skill sets have become desirable in the 12 and 13 shirts, Beck has developed a 'constructive' repertoire.
Many modern centres adopt a body angle which is already trained towards the ground before they've even approached contact. It's like watching an episode of Wales' Strongest Man where the object is to grit your teeth and drag as many back row forwards as far as you can until you are finally toppled by two halfbacks hanging off your neck. Yet Beck has a rare upright running style reminiscent of Will Greenwood, which when combined with two handed ball carrying allows him to offload before, during and beyond the contact situation.
Another key feature of Beck's constructive skill set is his ability to constantly scan the field of play even when running at full tilt. Whilst the rest of his body is playing professional rugby, his head often appears to be watching a frantic '5-setter 'at Wimbledon. This lateral scanning means that he's aware of his support runners and rarely ends up giving sloppy passes to the wings - the sort that of pass that has cost Wales a few tries in recent months.
Whilst his body position and awareness are impressive, it is his distribution skills that set him apart from Wales other more one dimensional centres - rugby may have become all about 'the inches', but sometimes it's still about the 30 yard pass. Beck passes supremely off both hands, and it is a skill that Gatland hasn't had at his disposal for some time. The ability to pass long off both hands becomes particularly important when teams operate an aggressive blitz defence. The blitz defence may be very effective at stopping the ball flowing through the backline, but if you can pass over the top of it, as Saracens proved against the Ospreys in Wembley, there's often a lot of fragmented space on the outside
Ashley Beck's deft skillset may lead you to believe that he isn't built for the impact of the 12/13 channel, yet it couldn't be further from the truth. Beck stands at 6'3" and weights 15st 7lbs; core stats that put him up there with the 'bang merchants' of world rugby. It's just in a rugby world where everyone seems obsessed with the leg drive; its Beck's hands that rightly attract the attention. Taking an average of the last three games that Beck, Roberts, Jon Davies and Scott Williams have played, Beck has thrown 50% more passes than each of them - and not the sort of no-look passes that fly directly into touch when there's a clear overlap.
Ashley Beck has had a very good start to the season and he offers Gatland a constructive skillset that none of the World Cup centres can currently provide. But whether a Welsh callup Beck-ons now, or on the summer tour of Australia, remains to be seen.
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This week saw Scott Johnson announce that he would be leaving the Ospreys at the end of the 2011/12 season. It has surprised few in Welsh rugby and the predictability of his departure was evident in its execution. There were no histrionics, there were no reporters clamoring for interviews outside the Liberty stadium, there were no shock media leaks.
This wasn't the sort of managerial sacking that rolls along the yellow 'breaking news' banner on the BBC Sport website. Johnson's departure was calm, premeditated and came complete with rose tinted comments from the Ospreys senior management. In fact, so gushing were the remarks that if you didn't know Johnson was leaving the Ospreys at the end of the season, reading the press release may have led you to believe that he was signing a new contract.
Andrew Hore, the Ospreys Operations Director said it was "a huge disappointment for us to be losing Scott at the end of the season". Roger Blyth, the Ospreys Managing Director said "Scott is an innovative thinker who has worked tirelessly for the cause since joining the Ospreys. While he has brought silverware to the Liberty Stadium, and we hope that will be the case once again this season, the real legacy he will leave is the systems and structures he has helped to develop."
The above comments not only highlight a carefully planned exit strategy, they also highlight the gulf that exists between the Ospreys senior management and their supporters. The Ospreys supporters don't want to hear about systems and structures, they want to see results. Andrew Hore may marvel at Johnson's ability to create structures, but the only structure that the fans cared about this season had 6 groups of 4 in it, and it's one the Ospreys now can't get out of despite having two games left to play.
This disparity of opinion between fans and rugby professionals towards Johnson isn't new. Whether it was coaching Wales, Australia, the USA or the Ospreys, few players, coaches, club or union executives seem to have a bad word to say about him. His closeness to the Welsh players was well documented during 'Ruddock-gate', and just this week Rhys Williams, the former Wales fullback, tweeted that "Scott Johnson was one of the best coaches I played under". Even the media seem to have a soft spot for Johnson with South Wales journalist Dafydd Pritchard tweeting that 'press conferences will be tamer for his exit".
Yet for all the quick thinking he demonstrated in press conferences, sharp thinking was rarely evident on the training ground or the touchlines. Recent examples include his decision to play 5 back row forwards at the expense of the in-form Ian Evans at Wembley and his bloody mindedness to continue with Kahn Fotuali and his prodigiously slow pass, whilst the highly able Rhys Webb warmed the bench at Parc Y Scarlets on Boxing Day.
But perhaps his greatest failing is the brand of rugby that he has created at the Ospreys. Johnson is a skills coach by trade, and has had some fine players at his disposal over the past 3 years, yet he has created a negative 'kick-first' mentality at the Liberty. It's a style of rugby that has favoured stodgy players like Dan Biggar and Andrew Bishop and marginalised the talents of James Hook. It's also a style of rugby that hasn't sat well with Ospreys supporters - just ask the man responsible for counting the gate receipts at the Liberty.
Many have blamed Johnson's inefficiencies as a head coach on the simple fact that he seems more comfortable adopting the No.2 role within a coaching hierarchy - I'm sure many Ospreys fans will refer to him as a No.2 for quite some time. There may be some truth in this theory. It could explain Johnson's decision to accept the role of Andy Robinson's assistant at the Scottish Rugby Union. He has signed a 4 year deal with the SRU on a salary believed to be £200,000 a year and will join up with the squad on their June tour to Australia, Fiji and Samoa.
Johnson may have yet again wowed his peers with his ability to create developmental systems and structures at the Ospreys, but 'Great Scott ' he certainly was not. Who knows, things may work out for him at the SRU, where the title would be more apt.
Rugby has become a game whose rules and regulations are increasingly open to interpretation. The trouble is, when it comes to that interpretation, players, pundits, writers, supporters - and most importantly referees - all seem to be speaking a different language.
The laws regarding the breakdown are particularly hard to translate, but the scrummage is by far the biggest area of concern. Front row engagement seems to no longer even be an issue of interpretation; it has genuinely become a lottery. Referees don't appear to know who is at fault, "it could be you", but it could just as easily be the other tight head.
The lack of consistency and understanding of the front row collision has almost resulted in the modern scrum becoming redundant as an attacking platform. There was a time when choosing a scrum from a penalty award was a viable attacking option, but why now would you waste a penalty award on a scrummage when you could easily re-concede a penalty in the slip of a bind?
The refereeing of the modern scrum is unfathomable. Even after seeing three replays from Sky TV's seemingly infinite camera angles, it is still impossible to spot a scrummaging offence. And if you're watching the game live in the stadium without the benefit of television replays, you've got no chance. Understanding of scrummaging decisions doesn't appear to be any easier if you are part of the actual scrum in question. This week even the Osprey's Adam Jones and Bath's David Flatman shared tweets about the confusing nature of this weekend's scrummaging offences in the Heineken Cup.
When discussing the inept refereeing of the scrummage, the finger of blame usually points to the fact that few top grade referees have played in the front row and therefore they lack the understanding required. It would therefore seem logical for the 'front row union' to dictate the way in which the scrummage should be officiated. But as often happens when front row forwards get their heads together, a disagreement ensues. In October of this year Fran Cotton, Mike Burton and Ray McLoughlin submitted a paper to the IRB that sought to improve the scrummage and its interpretation, only for Brian Moore to call their proposal "flawed."
It is unfair to blame rugby's scrummaging ills on referees. It isn't entirely their fault. The biggest problem is the new ultra streamline, elite level shirt designs. These shirts use highly sophisticated materials and are designed to limit the chance of an opposition player being able to grab hold of you. That is all well and good until you enter a passage of play where the whole point of the exercise requires you being able to grab hold of the opposition's jersey.
Whilst the scrummage may be the hardest area to interpret, it isn't the only area where rugby is fumbling its lines - communication at the 'breakdown' appears to have completely broken down. 'Sealing off', 'Side Entry' and 'not rolling away' have become rugby's mucus, and they are choking the game. Scarlets V Munster during Round 3 in the Heineken Cup was a perfect example of where a referee's interpretation allowed one team to stifle what could have been a free flowing showpiece. As Steve James commented in the Telegraph, "it appeared that Munster were constantly 'sealing off'".
But this isn't a problem that just affects Munster; it is affecting the game as a whole. Rugby is already struggling to fill its stadia, and the complicated laws and their interpretations don't help attract new audiences. How can we expect casual supporters or newcomers to get their heads around the rules when professional players and referees can't? There surely isn't another sport in the world where players have to look at a referee's reaction or ask if they will be committing an offence before they act. You don't see cricketers asking the umpire if they are allowed to swing their bat as a ball whistles past their earlobes.
Rugby needs to take note of the reforms that have revolutionised cricket. Cricket used to rely heavily on interpretation and subjective opinion, but thanks to technology and a forward thinking governing body it has become one of the most objective games in the world.
The IRB are obviously aware of the problem. In a recent interview conducted by the BBC, Nigel Whitehouse, the 'Referee Performance and Development Officer' at the Welsh Rugby Union stated: "We are looking at law changes being put forward for next year and I know they [the IRB] are doing a lot of research in relation to the scrummaging to see if we can make it better."
Rugby needs to hire an interpreter, and quickly, because at the moment some of the interpretations leave me lost for words.
It seems like an eternity since Wales worried about its players 'going north'. During rugby's amateur era a steady flow of Welsh talent found their way to the paying, northern clubs of rugby league. But the advent of the professional game in union has changed the direction that Welsh talent is leaving the principality.
Money is a powerful magnet and it has caused rugby's compass to swing. Welsh players are no longer traveling north; they're all heading south to France. It's hardly surprising; this season Toulouse, Clermont, and Racing Metro each had an incredible 20 million euros to spend.
This week the French newspaper L'Independant revealed the probable transfer of Luke Charteris from Newport Gwent Dragons to Perpignan. Apparently nothing has been confirmed, but this appears to have the same unsettling blueprint as the James Hook deal.
Charteris's move to France follows that of Hook, Phillips and Byrne, but in many ways the signing of Charteris is far more pertinent than the previous three. Despite having a great World Cup campaign Charteris isn't exactly a marquee name in world rugby. Unlike Hook, Phillips, and Byrne few of Perpignan's supporters would have heard of Charteris prior to this season, if at all - and it's for this reason that Welsh rugby should be concerned. Many supporters, writers and coaches expected the big French clubs to target Wales's star players, but few would have expected them to start targeting the relative rank and file of Welsh rugby.
This problem is not unique to Wales. Whilst the WRU no longer has to worry about its talent heading 'north', the Sanzar nations do - with South Africa, New Zealand and Australia all witnessing a mass migration of their players heading to France. Luke McAlister has moved to Toulouse, Sitiveni Sivivatu to Clermont Auvergne, Neemia Tialata and Josevata Rokocoko to Bayonne, Luke Burgess to Toulouse, Matt Giteau to Toulon and Francois Steyn to Racing Metro (although it is rumored that may soon return to Durban).
Whilst the French Top 14 poses a significant threat to the bloodstock of the Sanzar countries, the real threat comes from the Japanese. Japan used to be the pension pot for southern hemisphere players: George Smith (Suntory), Brad Thorn (Fukuoka Sanix Blues) and Mils Muliaina (NTT Docomo) have all been lured to the big Japanese clubs by hard cash and soft rugby. The Japanese rugby season is comparatively short, 13 games plus playoffs, but the real benefit is the standard of rugby - it's low, and so too is the impact on an aging body.
But the Japanese clubs no longer just see themselves as a destination for aging stars who fancy a stroll along rugby's retirement boulevard; they are now seeking players who are in their peak. Backed by generous corporate sponsorships the Japanese are putting together deals that will have the French moneymen choking on their Pétrus. Digby Ioane, who would currently feature in anyone's world 15, has recently turned down an undisclosed 7 figure sum from Japanese club Kubota and has instead re-signed with the Queensland Reds. But how many more players turn down such offers remains to be seen.
Whilst rugby may now operate in a free market, it does come at a cost. The cost is not as hard and fast as the vast sums that are changing hands between clubs and players, it's more intangible, but none the less important.
Rugby fans may soon have to accept that their nation's favourite players no longer play in their nation.
Unions such as Wales, Australia and New Zealand may soon have to address their policy of selecting only 'home' based players - Warren Gatland's repeated warnings that players face not being selected if they play outside Wales may soon have to be played on French radio stations; how else will the players will hear it? The only solution may be centrally contracting players, which is a very expensive practice for the unions and the rugby playing public, who will invariably foot the bill.
Ironically one of the biggest losers of the mass exodus to France could be the French. Their domestic league could become so full of foreign imports that it could jeopardise the progression of the national team. It's a very real threat, so much so that the French Rugby Union has recently insisted that 60% of all Top 14 rosters must be filled by French qualified players.
Rugby's compass has undoubtedly swung. Money is a powerful magnet and it is hard to avoid its pull. However unlike most magnets, this one seems to have more negatives than positives.
When it comes to talent pools, Welsh rugby has always splashed around in the shallows - after all, Wales only has 49226 registered male players to select from (IRB 2011). During the professional era the national team has on occasions fielded a competitive starting 15, but rarely anything more - the bench cover and supporting squad has always looked a little diluted.
But over the last 12 months things seem to have changed. The Welsh setup finally has some depth. It may not be the 'Olympic size' pool of talent that England and South Africa are fortunate enough to swim in, but the Welsh selectors are no longer just dipping their toes in a 'lido' - it's worth mentioning that whilst English Rugby may have a resplendent 'Olympic pool', they also seem to have recently installed an uncontrollable wave machine.
Wales's new found strength in depth was evident when Warren Gatland named his squad to face Australia. But it wasn't evident in the players that he selected, it was in the players that he didn't. There was no place for Aled Brew, Chris Czekaj or Tom James in the training squad. You may question my rugby knowledge for even mentioning those three players in relation to the Welsh squad, but that's exactly the point. 10 years ago all three would have been in contention to play for Wales. Lack of alternative talent would have resulted in Tom James's powerful running taking precedence over his inability to take the high ball or stay in the defensive line. Aled Brew's 'big' tries and big' hits would have over ridden his inability to do the small things right. And Chris Czekaj`s recent form in the PRO 12 would have resulted in calls for him to re-enter the Welsh setup at full-back.
The fact that Czekaj, James and Brew haven't been selected in the Welsh squad is due in no small part to the Welsh Academies and the WRU's development system. The manner in which the Welsh development system is producing talent makes the 'Fly Half Factory' of the seventies seem like a cottage industry. Quality young players are now flooding both the regional and Premiership squads every season. But it isn't just the rate at which they are being produced that is so impressive. It's the quality of these young players that's so breath taking. It used to take 5-7 years for a first-class team to develop a young player. They would arrive at 18, cement a place in the starting fifteen by the age of 22 and then, if good enough, attempt to break into the international set up at 25. But the Welsh development system is now producing players that are ready for regional rugby at 18 and test rugby at 21. They arrive 'out of the box' with the required muscle mass, fitness, skillsets and attitude.
Professional rugby players in Wales used to have at least 5 years breathing room between them and the young pretenders who were trying to take their positions at regional or international level. Thanks to the academies, they no longer have that luxury. Stephen Jones had over ten years at the helm before a genuinely credible alternative arrived on the scene in the form of Rhys Preistland. Preistland may be lucky if he has 2 years before Jordan Williams starts nipping at his heels at Parc Y Scarlets, and 4 years before he starts chewing on his thigh. It`s not inconceivable that the Welsh development system's current rate of production could spell the end of the 100 cap Welsh international. I wonder whether Steven Jones or Gareth Thomas would have achieved 100 caps if their international careers began today?
So the Welsh talent pool finally has a deep end. That is unless we're discussing tight-head props. Because as Scott Andrews' inclusion in the Welsh squad has highlighted, when it comes to tight-heads, Wales are still bobbing around in the paddling pool.