Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

All Blacks: Firepower on the flanks no longer just winging it

As the rain sluiced the valleys and the All Blacks sloshed through their first serious practice of the week, Bryan Williams mused on his warm memories of touring Wales and how the game has changed.

Forty years ago, conditions were similar as a young BeeGee visited for the first time.

He was in the All Black side beaten by Llanelli 9-3 at Stradey Park. Several weeks before the All Backs touched down for this trip in Europe, he and wife Lesley travelled the hour west from Cardiff to celebrate that day.

They were entertained by Derek Quinnell and his family, reminisced with Phil Bennett and Delme Thomas and others as part of a 1200 group who took part in a commemorative dinner.

Llanelli was the All Blacks first stop in Wales in 1972 where the legendary Carwyn James had prepared his men to take on the visitors.

The historic result is folklore in Wales which has been denuded of international success against the All Blacks since 1953. Lots of talk since, lots of hope but few games where they had a shout.

The game has changed in Wales and so have players.

In his playing kit, Williams was considered a robust package of 1.79m and 93kg at his heaviest whereas by comparison Daniel Carter is the same height but a few kilos heavier.

Diet, fitness, weight-training and genetics have produced larger players throughout the rugby world. Wings also seem to be following that pattern.

The All Blacks have Julian Savea at 1.92m and 103kg this weekend against Wales although on the other flank the versatile Cory Jane contradicts the big is mandatory theory at 1.83m and 89kg.

They will be duelling with two massive wings for Wales with the more experienced but still only 20-year-old George North standing 1.92m and weighing 109kg.

On the other flank the older Alex Cuthbert is 1.98m and 103kg. Think All Black lock Ian Jones on the wing, he had the same dimensions Cuthbert brings to his work in the No14 jersey.

Big men on the flanks and they are not scarce in the modern international arena.

Williams, now the NZRU president, mentioned a few names just to show it was not only a modern trend.

When the Lions toured New Zealand in 1971, they had David Duckham and John Bevan who were large and skilful men on the wing.

Duckham was the dasher and more dangerous while Bevan had brutish strength although the prince of them on that tour was the sleek and gifted Gerald Davies.

Springboks like Ray Mordt and Gerrie Germishuys were not small nor JP Pietersen these days while Joe Roff and Stirling Mortlock were powerfully-built Wallaby wings.

The All Blacks viewed Scotland wing Tim Visser whose 1.94m and 110kg chassis claimed two tries in Edinburgh a fortnight ago while Nick Cummins and Alesana Tuilagi have filled out the flanks and some, playing for the Wallabies and Samoa.

Had Hosea Gear started this week for the All Blacks he would have brought 104kg of muscle to his work on the flank.

There has been a shift back towards the larger wings, after that period a few years ago when the rules did not favour attack and teams decided it was better to play without the ball in their own half and hoofed it high or long.

Those tactics encouraged the All Black selectors to use versatile players on the wing, people such as Jane, Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Richard Kahui for more defensive solidity.

Now the game has changed again. International teams are not just looking for territory or the sideline, they want to build continuity and use their big men on the flanks to finish some deals.

Alternatively, they use big wingers to crash through inside channels to get over the advantage line or challenge loose forwards who have drifted too wide on set piece defence.

Then there are the hybrids, the dancers and opportunists like Jane and Bryan Habana, Gonzalo Comacho and Vincent Clerc who delight crowds and torment opposition.

Just as BeeGee recalled when he said men like Gerald Davies were the hardest to defend and contain because of their twinkling feet, balance and speed.

- NZ Herald

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