For those who grew up watching Rugby Union on the memories of Martin Johnson lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy for the first time, Jonny Wilkinson kicking that drop-goal, we shouldn’t forget a key piece of magic that ensured that England made it to the 2003 World Cup Final. In the quarter-final versus Wales, England were struggling having conceded two tries by half time. But on forty-four minutes, Jason Robinson burst through the Welsh defensive line setting up Will Greenwood for England’s key try. No one should forget the contribution made to the game by Robinson, or by any of the other supremely talented wingers who have made the game the outstanding spectacle that it is. Jonah Lomu running over Mike Catt in 1995, Chris Ashton outpacing Drew Mitchell in 2010, Takudzwa Ngwenya burning Brian Habana in 2007, Shane Williams versus four Springbok defenders in 2008. These are tries that will be remembered forever.
But either due to a lack of breath-taking speedsters or through the natural evolution of the game, wingers are becoming bit-part players in teams that are dominated by the forwards in France and by the half-backs in Great Britain and Ireland. And this is in both the international and domestic game. To put this in perspective, although Christian Wade, Semesa Rokoduguni and James Short (all wingers) currently lead the try-scoring charts in this year’s Aviva Premiership, the leading try-scorer in the previous two seasons was Thomas Waldrom, who as an Eight, scored many of his tries off rolling mauls and through relentless forward graft. It appears then that, at least in the northern Hemisphere, coaches are putting far less emphasis upon the wing position and that at the same time the number of truly elite finishers is declining.
Take a look at England’s 2017 Six Nations Squad for example. You would be well within your rights to argue that England’s weakest position is on the wing, with none of Jack Nowell, Jonny May, Marland Yarde or Anthony Watson inspiring to the extent that Nehe Milner-Skudder did in his prime, never mind Christophe Dominici or Jonah Lomu. Yes, May can score tries by virtue of his pace but none of these players regularly assist in try scoring or create their own chances; these being either provided by other backs or the winger finds himself running down a blind alley. Elliot Daly’s try against Wales in this year’s Six Nations is a good example of the former.
In domestic rugby it is largely the same, the deft handling and game management is supplied by the fly-half, scrum-half and the centres who create holes for others. Sonatane Takulua and Jimmy Gopperth have proved especially good at this. It should come as no surprise that three half-backs currently lead the standings for try assists in the Aviva Premiership this year, the three being Wasps’ Danny Cipriani and Dan Robson and Bath’s Kahn Fotuali’i. The exceptions to this rule are Leicester’s Telusa Veainu (who has been injured for much of the season and often plays full-back) and Denny Solomona of Sale Sharks, who has used his Rugby League pedigree in Union to great effect, scoring three tries in a brilliant performance against Wasps last weekend.
The increased importance attached to ball-handling, athletic forwards has also had an impact upon the winger’s diminishing role. With more players able to effectively run and pass with the ball in hand, more opportunities are created across the park and therefore wingers often have to actively involve themselves in the play, as they are often left out of moves that are generated in the centre of the field. The alterations in player physique have also played a role. Eddie Jones has consistently overlooked Christian Wade even though he is a regular try-scorer with a devastating burst of pace. Although Wade is dynamite going forward, he is only Five-Foot-Eight and thirteen stone. Placed opposite Julian Savea or even Yoann Huget, Wade is comprehensively out-matched in the air and the tackle and this has served to limit his international prospects as Jones has acted conservatively on the wings whilst allowing the other thirteen players to express themselves.
What can be done about this? Coaches are opting for game-plans marginalising wingers because they don’t have confidence that those on the edges of the pitch have the ability to make the key difference. The change therefore needs to start at grassroots. If we can get more exciting wingers, blessed with speed, anticipation and a killer step we will see the wing position revitalised in Rugby Union. As it is, it has been a long time since Super Rugby has graced our screens and perhaps come the start of next week I will be less concerned. But for the moment, the wing position is very much in need of revitalisation, the Northern Hemisphere calling out for a new Jason Robinson, Christophe Dominici or Shane Williams.