Rugby: Willem Nel slays the Dragons

Edinburgh’s David Denton (left), Willem Nel (2nd left) and Ross Ford (2nd right)
fire towards Newport’s Toby Faletau (from the Edinburgh Rugby Facebook Page)

What more does Willem Nel have to do to get a man-of-the-match award? The Edinburgh tighthead virtually won the game against the Dragons on his own on Friday night.

Four times in the first half he destroyed the Dragons scrum so comprehensively that Edinburgh won a penalty as a result and it was his immense shove right at the death that prompted the final penalty for Edinburgh, the one that Harry Leonard chipped over for Edinburgh’s 16-13 win.

The man-of-the-match award actually went to another southern African, number eight David Denton, who was characteristically rumbustious in the loose and charged headlong into the Dragons all night, but it was Nel who was the difference between the teams.

The new scrummaging laws are supposed to have turned the scrums from being a source of penalties to a way of restarting the game cleanly and efficiently. Well, that’s not how Nel and Edinburgh see them. The new laws, which favour technique and suppress the advantage of the hit, are perfect for top-quality scrummagers like Nel. Time and again he – and his superb front-row colleagues Ross Ford and Alasdair Dickinson – were able to drive their opponents backwards and upwards, totally legally, winning penalty after penalty.

Edinburgh Rugby v Newport Gwent Dragons (from Facebook)
Edinburgh Rugby v Newport Gwent Dragons
(from Facebook)
The referee actually stopped handing Edinburgh penalties in the second half, preferring to watch the Dragons being driven backwards and frantically struggle to release the ball from the base of the scrum without blowing the whistle. That is until the last moment of the match when he had no choice. The Dragons were pushed so comprehensively backwards and upwards in that final scrum that he had to award that final penalty and hand Edinburgh the win.

Nel becomes Scottish qualified in two years, hopefully just before the World Cup and, if he continues this kind of form and if the IRB leave the scrum laws alone for a bit, he could be just what Scotland need to gain parity in a group that contains the scrummaging powerhouses from South Africa.

But if Nel was the cornerstone of this Edinburgh victory then the rest of the pack provided the solid foundations. With Grant Gilchrist and Izaak van der Westhuizen in the second row, Dmitri Basilaia, Denton and Roddy Grant, it was not a small scrum. The strength hardly went down when the subs came on, particularly another huge South African in Wicus Blaauw who came into the front row for Dickinson for that all-important final push.

So if anyone wants any hints as to how Edinburgh are going to play this season, then this is it. They have a South African coach in Alan Solomans who likes to play direct, hard, full-frontal rugby. They have a South African spine through their immense scrum and they might as well play to their strengths, which is what they did on Friday night. It is not pretty. It is not the light, exciting off-loading game that Edinburgh used to excel in. It is based around a big pack that bested the Munster eight in the tight last week and comprehensively did the same to the Dragons this week.

The problem for Edinburgh comes behind the scrum. Tim Visser was back to his poaching best on Friday, scoring with just about the only real chance that came his way and Nikki Walker on the other wing looked eager for action. Greig Tonks at 15 is also looking solid and dangerous.

The back three are fine, the problem is getting the ball to them. Young scrum half Sean Kennedy started at nine on Friday in Greig Laidlaw’s absence. Kennedy has a good pass and looks to be quick on his feet too. However, he is often so cautious about releasing the ball from the base of rucks until he is entirely ready and the players outside him are set up, that the opposition has all the time in the world to align and get ready.

Time and again, Edinburgh would take the ball into contact then there would be a delay while Kennedy waited before releasing the ball. By that time there was no chance of a breakthrough.
Kennedy has to take more risks and provide snappier service for his backs, who, for their part have to be much quicker at preparing to receive the ball.

Edinburgh Rugby v Newport Gwent Dragons (From Facebook)
Edinburgh Rugby v Newport Gwent Dragons
(From Facebook)
As the Lions showed in the summer, the key to attacking play is alignment after the ball goes to ground. Any team that can provide quick ball from the ruck to players waiting in the correct position to receive it will eventually find gaps because the opposition will inevitably get it wrong and slow at some time.

Leonard, playing at ten last night in the absence of Piers Francis also needs to be quicker and take more risks. He was obviously playing to a game plan to kick the ball both high and often and long and often on Friday, but it didn’t always work and Edinburgh came away second best from the kicking duels several times.

It is all very well having a scrum-based, territorial game plan but, when you have finishers of the quality of Walker and Visser, it is crying shame not to use them more in open play.

In the centres, Nick De Luca was his usual maddening self, doing the good things very well and being poor at others, missing a simple pass to Visser on one occasion and getting pinged for a high tackle on another. Dougie Fife, outside him, is not a natural centre, and it showed. He was reasonably competent most of the time but, on the one occasion when he had Visser in space and unmarked outside him, he delayed the pass too long and the chance was gone. Those are the sort of chances Edinburgh have to take and which, for the moment at least, this backline seems incapable of taking. De Luca is so much better at outside centre than at 12, which is where he was on Friday. Many of Visser’s tries in the last two seasons have come from De Luca’s service just inside him and, to get the best out of Visser, De Luca has to play at 13. But that can only happen when Matt Scott is back from injury and playing at 12.

Scott has the ability to become the best centre Scotland have produced for a generation and Edinburgh need his skills desperately at the moment. They also need Laidlaw back at nine and Francis to show he really is a quality ten.

Edinburgh do have a lot of injuries to their first choice backs and it would be wrong to judge them solely on the basis of the makeshift back division they put out on Friday. They secured the win thanks to the grind and grunt of Nel and his mates up front but, to frighten the big teams, they need to get their first choice backs to turn this from being a team of eight players to a team of 15.