RUGBY UNION: Outside-halves become the outsiders

Hugh Bateson on the young talents that failed to live up to expectation s
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The Independent Online
It was something Arwel Thomas had probably been dreaming about for most of his 21 years. A crucial Five Nations match is there to be won, time is flicking past in the second half, two sides are deadlocked in a thrilling match and the latest inheritor of the great tradition of Wales' No 10s takes the ball from an attacking ruck in front of the posts on the 22. It is a grand moment.

Alas poor Arwel. Ignoring the four men bellowing up to his right, he opts for the drop goal and the frail shoulders immediately slump as a desperate miscue sends the ball slithering under the bar. It is a ridiculous kick for an international player. The effect on him was obvious, but that on his team can only be imagined. "There were half-chances that we did not take, and if you don't take them you lose in international rugby," his despairing captain, Jonathan Humphreys, said afterwards.

As the second half went on, Gregor Townsend would have killed for a decent half-chance. Scotland, the favourites, with a Grand Slam in the sights (even if all talk of the grail had been banned from the camp), were struggling. Every time they tried to break out they were flung back on the rocks by waves of red jerseys. Townsend himself was struggling. Wales gave away penalty after penalty, the stand-off had chance after chance to clear to touch - and failed with every one.

And then he stood the game on its head. All it took was a flicked pass the length of a cricket bat, and Kenny Logan was off on the surge which led directly to Townsend's ultimately decisive try. Townsend's pass itself was a piece of high skill, but what made it devastating was exactly where it was played from - right under the noses of the advancing Welsh tacklers, committing them all and giving them no chance to recover once Logan was away. Huge tracts of land just had to be gained.

The result of the match was in doubt to the last minute, but the game within it, the much-hyped contest between two of the brightest outside- halves in the domestic game, was decided rather earlier.

In truth, neither of the brilliantly talented pair really fulfilled themselves: if Thomas's list of "must do betters" is slightly the longer of the two, all of Scotland will have been thoroughly alarmed by Townsend's lamentable kicking.

The bare statistics tell that Thomas kicked more than Townsend (12 of the 24 times he received it as opposed to 10 from 39), and that Townsend ran more than Thomas (four to none). But there were more profound differences.

Townsend operates best in the danger area - "in their faces" as the jargon has it - as close to the defenders as he can get. He takes the ball as flat as he can and commits his opponents to the last thing a defence wants - instant response. There is no chance of the much vaunted drift defence here.

This tactic is not a panacea for all of rugby ills, as Scotland's inability to lift the second-half seige shows, but it does produce dramatic results - both Scotland's best moves, for the try and an earlier long break by Ian Jardine, came from the two shortest passes Townsend played all day.

Thomas, who is, remember, fully three stone lighter, is unlikely to withstand the buffeting Townsend takes and plays slightly deeper. There with his vision and deft skills, chips and passes he looks to create for those around him.

Eventually, Townsend's persistence paid off for Scotland, and Thomas was left the numb feeling of having missed by no more than a foot the fearsomely difficult conversion which would have avoided defeat.

They will both have better days, and many of them - which is nothing but a wonderful thought.

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