We saw it with a certain well-groomed No. 7 from Manchester United. The media develop a crush on a particularly charismatic player and a tornado-like hype machine develops, which spins the player’s performances beyond all realms of reality or perspective.
So let’s lift the rose-tinted glasses and examine which five international players’ performances aren’t quite living up to the gushing plaudits they receive or are not playing up to their previous lofty standards.
5. George Ford
“I think George can be better than Beauden Barrett,” raved Eddie Jones last year to The Telegraph.
“People rave about Beauden Barrett but I don’t. I just think George has got a great feel for the game. He sees opportunities.”
George Ford is a very talented fly-half and had a solid, if not spectacular, Six Nations campaign, however if we compare his Six Nations to Barrett’s Rugby Championship performances, Eddie Jones’ claims start to look a little hollow.
In five games, Ford scored exactly zero tries, ran 85 total metres, made one clean break, two try assists and beat five defenders. For Barrett, in six games, he scored four tries, ran 395 metres, made ten clean breaks, seven try assists and beat 24 defenders.
It doesn’t take a mathematician to work out that despite Barrett having the extra game, his numbers put Ford’s stats and Eddie’s words in the shade.
4. Kieran Read
Kieran Read is All Black captain and was a deserved 2013 IRB Player of the Year. As a new captain last year his success probably exceeded his expectations. The All Blacks rebounded brilliantly from losing more than 800 caps of experience with the retirements of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter et al. and only lost one match in the season.
However, Read’s own performances at No. 8 were not at the standard of previous seasons. While he was a tireless tackler, with 50 in six games, and was the go-to man in the lineout with 24 catches, his ability to make metres going forward was worryingly low.
Read had 57 carries for just 174 metres – or about three metres per carry and these numbers declined further in the northern tour. His ranging runs out wide and brilliant offloads also seemed to dry up. Is it the case of a new role for Read?
With Dane Coles and Brodie Retallick playing like third rowers, has Read just adapted to the needs of the team? Or does his form and role deserve a little more scrutiny with two years still remaining before the 2019 World Cup?
3. Israel Folau
Israel Folau is a phenomenal athlete who has Roger Federer-like effortless grace even in the brutal rugby arena. He was a teenage phenomenon in rugby league and has performed at outstanding levels for the Wallabies since switching codes.
However, he went tryless in last year’s Rugby Championship, made only one clean break and beat 12 defenders in five games. His tryless drought continued in the northern tour, although his general play and form was a lot more energised with far more Folau-like stats of 452 metres in four games, making nine clean breaks and beating 21 defenders.
Folau is always an automatic selection for the Wallabies – but should commentators be more critical of his consistency?
2. Maro Itoje
After reading yet another sycophantic article in the English press about ‘phenomenal’ Maro Itoje, this writer decided a little bit of perspective was needed. Itoje had an excellent debut season in the Six Nations and was rightfully nominated for IRB Player of the Year in 2016. However, his form in the 2017 Six Nations, despite England’s hot streak of victories, was underwhelming compared to the previous year.
Admittedly, Itoje played out of position at blindside flanker for a couple of games, and some aspects of his play were outstanding like his 73 tackles with a 96 per cent completion rate and 16 lineout catches. But in terms of attacking impact, Itoje was distinctly average – making 65 metres from 39 carries – or less than two metres per carry.
Compare that to Joe Launchbury, who made 121 metres with less game time, or Courtney Lawes, who made 90 metres, matched Itoje in lineouts and tackles made, and actually had a slightly higher completion rate.
Yet is Courtney Lawes spoken about in such reverential terms? Maro’s good – no doubt about it. But is he ‘phenomenal’?
1. Sonny Bill Williams
SBW is a living headline generator. Whether by accident or design, he has a habit of hogging the media spotlight as he continues to live according to Mr Sinatra’s ‘I did it my way’ maxim. Williams has an outstanding skill set and can produce miraculous offloads which, again often make the highlight clips. However, his play is high risk, high reward.
How many of his outrageous offloads actually come off? Of course they are great for TV ratings, selling jerseys and inducing gasps, but is a less flashy player who uses more traditional skills like running intelligent lines and passing into space like Conrad Smith or Ryan Crotty actually more effective?
With the Lions tour looming and a plethora of midfield options available for Steve Hansen, there is almost an automatic assumption that SBW will be selected despite not playing 15s last season and being injured since August.
Perhaps commentators need to look beyond the basketball overhead passes and backflicks, and decide if Sonny Bill’s all-round game really deserves to skip the queue and be granted VIP access to the All Black squad.
(Statistics sourced from NZherald.co.nz)
Kaal Kaczmarek, Pundit Arena