ANALYSIS: What makes the perfect wing?
OPINION: Following on from our look at the outside centre position, we now come to the penultimate article in Alex Shaw’s series attempting to build the perfect rugby player, with an examination of the wing position.
Certain things remain as true at the position now as they were 20 or even 30 years ago, but plenty of things have also changed and there could be yet more redefining of the position if the proposed 50-22 kicking law is taken onboard by the sport.
Below we have rounded up the five key attributes for the position and provide an example of a player who currently best exhibits that particular skill. One area where wings have always had to be proficient is in their speed. If they can get outside of a defensive blitz, they are often in a one-on-one race with a covering fullback for the tryline. Even if they can’t ultimately get in for a score, chances are that the quicker they are, the more territory they will gain before they are finally tackled.
South Africa’s Cheslin Kolbe leads the way here, not only with his top-end pace that has left many a defender grasping at thin air, but also his acceleration and ability to maintain speed when changing direction. It’s that manoeuvrability that makes Kolbe so elusive and why he has become one of the most feared players in international rugby.
As one of a team’s primary attacking weapons, wings need to have good finishing skills and instincts. This can range from an appreciation of when and where opportunities are going to arise, to an ability to manipulate their body and get the ball over the tryline even in the smallest of spaces and battling both defenders and the touchline.
While there are wings in international rugby who will claim to have better all-round skill sets, not many can match the pure finishing skills of France’s Teddy Thomas. Just like his predecessors for Les Bleus, Thomas seems to have an uncanny knack for popping up at just the right time and in just the right positions. He’s a pure finisher.
Combined with those speed and finishing elements, the attacking triumvirate is completed by the footwork that a wing needs to have to excel. The ability to step, spin or stutter can leave defenders’ red-faced and out of luck, whilst it also allows the attacking player to generate power going into contact, something which has long been a desired attribute for wings to be able to show.
There is no shortage of wings with adept footwork currently playing and New Zealand’s Rieko Ioane is one of the chief examples. The Blues wing is not only able to beat defenders by pulling off subtle and effective steps at speed, he is also one of the most deadly wings in rugby in small spaces, where his fast feet deliver a force that many larger wings struggle to create.
With the increase in kicking in rugby, wings have had to become more adept at dealing with aerial balls and already mentioned, that is only going to increase if the 50-22 kicking law comes to be. To be able to read the flight of a ball, position themselves well and then time their jump to be in prime position and not risk giving up penalties is one of the most desired skills any wing can have.
Key to their recent charge to the World Cup Final, England’s Jonny May is arguably the most consistent international player in this area. His ability to win back kicks is second to none and he repeatedly makes tough and contested catches look easy when fielding kicks from the opposition. His speed is not to be dismissed either, but it’s in the air where he truly separates himself from the crowd.
Finally, we come to vision. With wings often having to field kicks from deep and launch counter-attacks, vision for space on the pitch is paramount. It goes beyond counter-attacks, with a rugby pitch often proving to be a congested area given the size and speed of players, so a wing who can pop up in midfield and exploit a hole in the defence is worth their weight in gold.
Although your gaze is initially drawn to his sizeable frame, Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale is one of the best going in this more subtle component of the position. He seems to have a natural feel for where space and holes in the defence are going to open up and regularly exploits them by tracking the ball in the midfield. His ability on the counter-attack is built around far more than his size and power.
Speed – Cheslin Kolbe
Finishing – Teddy Thomas
Footwork – Rieko Ioane
Aerial ability – Jonny May
Vision – Jacob Stockdale
By Alex Shaw, @RugbyPass