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Dublin: 11 °C Sunday 25 August, 2019
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Milner Skudder shouldn't look this good but he's an All Black and all he knows is success

New Zealand play in such a way that it guarantees their wingers always thrive, writes Simon Hick.

Image: Kirsty Wigglesworth

NEHE MILNER-SKUDDER has a total of eight caps, and can call himself a World Cup winner.

He scored the key try in the final, he leads the tournament stats for metres made (561), and made 15 clean breaks, more than any other player.

He’s only played in the Super Rugby competition 15 times, was playing for regional side Manawatu as recently as last year, and before that was considered a slightly above average rugby league convert.

He made his debut at the end of this year’s Rugby Championship, scoring two tries against Australia. He’s not a Jonah Lomu style prodigy either. He’s about to turn 25, which is mid-career by New Zealand backline standards.

Going on current form, he’s the best winger in the world; two months ago only hardcore fans had heard of him. All he knows of international rugby is success, ticker tape parades and lots of space in which to roam. This could only happen to an All Black.

He is 5ft 9 inches tall, and has decent upper body strength but nothing exceptional. He has the best sidestep since Shane Williams, offloads like Sonny Bill, has lightning acceleration and the composure of somebody with 100 caps.

What’s really interesting about Milner Skudder, though, is what he represents about the current state of the game.

A player in his mid 20s breaking into rugby union for the first time shouldn’t be this successful, but New Zealand play in such a way that it guarantees their wingers always look good. Every time he receives the ball he’s in space, or is afforded the opportunity to attack the opposition defence on his terms.

Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Brodie Retallick, Kieran Read, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith are the real influencers on this New Zealand team, but the success of their wingers (Julien Savea was the tournament’s top try scorer) explains why they are so dominant.

If a team can put players into space, it takes care of a lot of other aspects of the game. There have been subtle changes in the laws that are taking the power away from the rucking teams and giving it to those who find space or seek not to go to ground.

Players can no longer touch the head or neck of the opposition when clearing a player from a ruck which makes turnovers a lot more likely. Plus, referees appear to be more and more inclined to award a penalty or a turnover to a team that has been defending legally for more than 10 phases.

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2015 - Final - New Zealand v Australia - Twickenham Source: PA Wire/PA Images

If a team goes through more than five or six rucks, and at any point stops making ground, then they won’t score at all. The best illustration of this was Wales against Australia, who looked less likely to score the more phases they went through.

There was evidence of this change in emphasis throughout the tournament with wide players repeatedly finding room to breathe. Adam Ashley Cooper scored a hat trick in the semi final without being touched and without having to do a whole lot. The stars for Argentina were their wingers Juan Imhoff and Santiago Cordero. DTH Van Der Merwe was Canada’s most influential player.

The obsession in Ireland has been about our lack of ball carriers, when our real focus should be on finding more players who can put others into space.

What’s most instructive of all from Ireland’s perspective is that the two best moments against Argentina came from offloads. The first Luke Fitzgerald try came from Conor Murray collecting an Argentinian chip kick and then immediately offloading out of the tackle. The ball was spun wide and Robbie Henshaw popped a short pass to Fitzgerald who finished brilliantly.

The second try also came from an offload, as Fitzgerald managed to contort his body free of the tackle just enough to feed Jordi Murphy. Those tries didn’t require multiple phases or massive physical strength and they demonstrated that there is a licence to offload. They were the only thing that stopped it being a massacre.

Ireland also showed some real attacking class against Scotland this year and France the year before, proving some Irish players have the skills required. The semi finals and final showed we are some way off the pace, but the future may not be as bleak as the defeat to Argentina suggests.

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About the author:

Simon Hick

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