01 Sep Will Greenwood Speaks Ahead of the New Season – The Telegraph
I admit I am a pretty excitable guy at the best of times but I can honestly say I have not looked forward to a season as much as I have this one for a long time.
The Lions tour to New Zealand, England’s series win in Argentina – propelled by a mixture of young thrusters and established internationals – Scotland’s victory over Australia in Sydney… all have combined to whet the appetite.
The prospect of seeing the young bucks like Sam Underhill and Tom Curry grappling every weekend has me positively salivating. Because there is a subplot here and it’s this; the Lions tour is done and dusted and the World Cup is now just over two years away.
England are the number two team in the world, and there is a very real prospect that if you aren’t in Eddie’s squad by the end of this season it will be tough to scrap your way in.
There is no doubt that Eddie is still looking for 10-15 players to fill his England squad. Even places we think might already be locked down are up for grabs. We assume that established players, Lions stars such as Dan Cole and Kyle Sinckler and Joe Marler, will be going to Japan. And then you watch Ellis Genge and Will Collier and Harry Williams out in Argentina. It’s going to be fascinating.
It feels this year as if there are so many interesting angles and sub-plots; new players, new coaches, new breakdown laws. The last of those will certainly have an effect on the rugby we are going to watch.
The trend we saw on the Lions tour in June and July, and more recently in the opening games in the Rugby Championship – the two- to three-man ‘hit unit’ which can clear out rucks out with fewer numbers – will have sparked a behind-the-scenes race between the Alan Turings of the coaching world to crack the new laws.
Historically, as I tell the kids I coach, the best breakdown specialists have been the best ‘surfers’. That is to say, guys like Josh Kronfield and George Smith and Heinrich Brussow. The guys who tackle and then ‘pop up’, as if on a surfboard, on the other side of the breakdown, where they can be a nuisance.
Now that you can no longer get stuck on the wrong side of the tackle and interfere with play, you may need a wrestling coach rather than a surfing coach; someone to help you flip your body around after the tackle, so that you can come through the gate.
Or maybe we will see the guy who makes the tackle roll away in an innocent but totally mischievous way that buys time for the second guy to come in? I’m not sure but I’m looking forward to finding out.
I think the intention, as it is with all of these changes, is to create a bit of Twenty20; to make the game faster, more spectacular. And I think World Rugby are absolutely to be applauded for trying to do that.
They don’t always get it right, but by and large they do. You only need to look at the increase in viewing figures, sold out games, television coverage, women’s rugby. I think it’s important not to have a situation like cricket has with the Indian board where they can refuse to trial DRS, or UEFA and FIFA with goal-line technology. I like the fact that rugby is constantly evolving.
My one worry with the changes this season is whether we might see some sort of reverse halo effect. In the past the clever tacklers, the Neil Backs of this world, the little guys, would allow the runner to beat them on the outside and then do the low chop tackle which got them on the wrong side of the ball, from which position they could then scrag the ball.
Clearly that tackle is no longer effective. So what might happen is people look for the big head-on tackle; bigger becomes better. I’m not sure that would be a good thing.
Either way, I think teams who can get square early – ‘nipple to nipple’ is the phrase we use – will reap the benefits. Saracens have the squarest defence and the biggest press. They are still the team to beat, especially when you factor in the addition of guys like Liam Williams, Calum Clark.
I think the top three will be the same. I still like last year’s champions Exeter. Rob Baxter has been very very quiet in the transfer market, which is his style. He prefers to develop his players skills rather than buy in new ones. Nothing wrong with that. The only thing I’d say about the Chiefs is they’ve got to be better in Europe this season. There’s only so many times you can use the ‘small team who are over-achieving’ tag. They are Premiership champions now.
What else? I love Marcus Watson signing for Wasps. I tweeted last year, ‘what odds Watson and Watson for England?’ I’d love to see that. George Ford at Leicester is an interesting one. George is a rock star in my opinion. I thought he should have been a Lion but he was sublime out in Argentina. I reckon he will ensure the Tigers complete the top four, particularly if he has a fit and firing Manu Tuilagi outside him.
So many interesting sub-plots. Will Gloucester be Jekyll or Hyde? Can Northampton find their way out of their funk? Can London Irish drag Worcester or Sale into a relegation scrap with them?
I think so. I’m a massive fan of Nick Kennedy and everything he has done there. I also adore Napolioni Malanga. What a player. I used to love watching him run up and down the left wing like a steam train at Clermont. It would be great to see him do so again at the Madejski. It is all shaping up nicely.
Player to watch: Marcus Smith (Harlequins)
The loss of Nick Evans will be difficult for Quins to absorb, albeit he didn’t play much last year. But it does open the door to others. I know Quins have brought in Demetri Catrakilis from Montpelier but I’m hearing great things about this kid Marcus Smith from their academy who has already trained with Eddie Jones’s England squad. People whose opinions I trust tell me he is the real deal; off the charts.
Team to watch: Bristol
This is shaping up to be one of the most competitive seasons I can remember. But it is only going to get harder next year. Bristol are building a proper squad down in the Championship. I love the fact that Steve Luatua has signed for a Championship club. And Chris Vui, Ian Madigan and Luke Morahan. I reckon they could tie up promotion by February. Bristol put the wind up a lot of big teams last season. They will be a force with which to be reckoned next time around.
Biggest disappointment: No England vs New Zealand
My altruistic self understands it is more important that Tier 2 nations get their shot at the bigger teams. But if we can get Mayweather-McGregor on, why can’t we get an England vs All Blacks game?