Gone are the days of the rugby robot, the player who fills a niche role, avoiding any other meaningful contribution. In truth, those days were left behind a while back. The modern game requires players with a distinct ability to add more to their team by being versatile.
A few years ago we saw gym-built rugby machines prowling pitches, the focus on physical prowess rather than developing a ‘rugby brain’, one capable of breaking down defences using real time problem solving. The Rugby World Cup in 2015 saw the return of the small bloke with the likes of Ben Smith, Matt Giteau and Santiago Cordero running rings round opposing teams. Physically they could look after themselves but hit the top of the game through their ability to make good decisions under a huge amount of pressure.
Since then, it’s been pleasing to see more players using the ‘top two inches’ in more than just their decision making processes. Versatile players are contributing massively to various teams across world rugby. Players who have a broader understanding of what is needed from players around them, not just because they have thought about how specific decisions have consequential effects on others, but based on experiences too.
I won’t go as far to say they are utility players — that’s doing them a disservice. They have a genuine ability to play more than one position due to an array of skills. Experience playing in those positions at domestic and international level has helped mould them into brilliant all-rounders, who contribute so much to a coach’s game plan.
Take Elliot Daly. So many have questioned his ability to play on the wing. Why? He has every attribute to be able to do that. Don’t give the example of a red card against Argentina — out-and-out wingers have made that mistake.
His skill set allows him to contribute to the team as a wing, a centre if needed and also as a ball-playing decision-maker when required. He does a damn good job in all departments too. His understanding of what other players around him need to perform their roles means he offers more than a physical skill base, his brain is ahead of the game.
He is thinking about how his actions affect others. Not many offer that. Especially out there in those wider channels where running lines and timing are so key to defence-splitting plays.
Maro Itoje is another great example. It wasn’t long ago that a second-row wearing a back-row shirt in a Test match would have caused controversy to an extent. Hardly an eyebrow was raised last week as he was named at six for England. Testament to his versatile abilities within the game.
He offers a complete rugby package. Having been a student of the game and gained a key understanding of it in its entirety, he has developed into one of the first names on the teamsheet. He ends up with a stratospheric number of man of the match awards resulting from his ability to stand out in a number of areas; lineout, ruck, defence and carrying are all strong parts of his game. Other players may only tick one or two of those boxes.
Mako Vunipola is one of these players, too. He has developed into a truly world-class player through his ability to carry, scrum, defend and operate in wider channels using his hands. Not something we see too often from front row forwards.
I had experience of being versatile, albeit a poor man’s version of the two lads above But throughout my career I shifted from one position to another and over time developed an understanding of what those on the receiving end of my actions might say or do. As a young centre I didn’t possess that skill but by the time I retired I had experience of fly-half, both centres, wing and fullback. I played in each of these for more than six months and grew an understanding quickly by doing so.
No doubt at times it was hard for me to get my brain around but I’m sure Daly and Itoje take that in their stride and use it to their advantage. It doesn’t seem to bother them to change from game to game and almost perfects their offering. Being versatile has been turned on its head, the new breed of player has landed.