Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: How big wings bring back excitement

Giant wings are slowly returning to the international game, possibly heralding the joyous news that the days of kick-and-chase rugby are, mercifully, a thing of the past.

In a weekend of unprecedented test activity in Europe, there were oversized wings steamrolling across the continent, with two in action - Scotland's Tim Visser and All Black Julian Savea - later tonight.

Such out-and-out strike runners were lost to the game for a period; 2009 was probably the nadir when wings around the world were ditched in favour of fullbacks. The idea of picking a wing who could beat players one-on-one and find space or score tries got lost. Instead the fixation with kick-and-chase saw back threes across the globe peppered with high balls, creating the need for high-ball specialists.

Out went the likes of Sitiveni Sivivatu and Joe Rokocoko and in came the new breed of auxiliary fullbacks such as Ben Smith, Zac Guildford and Cory Jane.

No international side backed the strike runners, as they carried too many defensive risks. Rugby was in a horribly dark place when it couldn't find room for men who had the capacity to light up the game.

It is all promisingly different now - the game has evolved and sits in a better place. There is appetite, a lustful one at that, for the big ball runners; the dash-and-bash men who thrill with their ability to go round or over opponents.

This may be a great era for the explosive wing - an opportunity to once again prove that rugby is a more compelling game when a macro-sized athlete being let loose on unsuspecting opponents.

Wales have the 104kg Alex Cuthbert on one wing against Argentina and the 110kg George North on the other. The Irish have three biggish wings in their squad, the largest being the 1.90m, 100kg Andrew Trimble. South Africa went with the 105kg JP Pietersen on the wing and the Wallabies had the 1.91m, 101kg Nick Cummins.

Scotland's Visser is a massive 1.94m and 110kg, while the All Blacks of course have the 104kg Hosea Gear as well as the 102kg Savea to call upon. The daddy of them all - the 120kg Alesana Tuilagi - will be in action this week when Samoa play Wales.

These marauding giants are rugby's equivalent of lichen - just as the presence of moss on trees indicates a purity of air, the emergence of genuine wings indicates rugby is in an attacking mindset.

"They are going back to the big wings again and it is getting ridiculous," reckons the ever-humorous and undersized Jane. "The boys are 100-plus kgs and I'm stuck on 90kg. It is switching back; so many kicking plays came around and by 2009, rugby was in a depressing stage. Now wings are able to be wings again, but they are still working hard on being able to catch the high ball.

"When fullbacks were asked to jump on the wing - they were there to catch the high ball. I would say that fullback and wing are pretty much the same if you have played in both positions but I don't think many of the 100kg-plus guys would go so well at fullback."

To Jane's mind, the role of fullback and wing remain largely similar but there is less risk now in selecting one wing who is not recognised as an expert under the high ball.

There is less kicking overall - more teams are willing to push the ball wide and try to create space. If they can do that, they need a finisher.

Has there been a better sight this season than Gear's rampaging run in Hamilton? Or Savea willing to drop his shoulder at full flight and blow through defenders? North is a supreme athlete with pace and agility and, when he finds space, he's difficult to bring down.

As for Tuilagi - will anyone ever tire of seeing men his size capable of frightening speeds, get the ball and charge?

- Herald on Sunday

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