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FEATURE 'Imagine what Rees-Zammit could do with more ball on Rugby World Cup stage'

'Imagine what Rees-Zammit could do with more ball on Rugby World Cup stage'
8 months ago

There was a nice moment during Wales’ World Cup win over Georgia when the TV cameras cut to the great Gerald Davies, looking supremely relaxed in one of the stands at Stade de la Beaujoire.

The lady sitting alongside the legendary former wing seemed to alert him their images were on the big screen but the man with the Dennis Hopper/Easy Rider moustache declined to drop into uncool, overexcited mode.

Instead, Davies calmly kept his gaze focused on the action. Perhaps he was enjoying the efforts of the man in the number 14 jersey he used to wear himself.

Louis Rees-Zammit’s three tries took his tally to five at this World Cup and 14 in 31 Tests overall. Alas, Wales don’t get the ball to him enough.

On Saturday, he received just five passes, two of those after he switched to full-back when Mason Grady came on with 11 minutes to play. Between the ninth and 43rd minutes, not a single pass came Rees-Zammit’s way.

Yet he finished the game with three tries.

Wales Georgia
Louis Rees-Zammit sails through the air en route to one of three tries in Wales’ final pool match against Georgia (Photo by PA)

For some of a certain vintage, it might have prompted memories of the freezing winter’s day in Gwent in 1978 when Davies himself showed how to make the most of mere crumbs of possession. His Cardiff side were up against a Pontypool pack containing four British and Irish Lions. The visitors didn’t expect to win much ball and didn’t confound those expectations. Their right wing famously received only four passes but turned all of them into tries, showcasing his devastating stepping ability. Forty-five years on, it remains one of the great individual performances.

It goes without saying Rees-Zammit has a long way to go before he can compete with Davies, a man the authors of Fields of Praise: The Official History of the Welsh Rugby Union, rated as the finest of all Welsh wings. But the Gloucester player does have the ability to make something out of nothing.

It was noticeable Warren Gatland carefully went out of his way not to overdo his praise of 22-year-old Rees-Zammit.

His final score against Georgia underlined as much, as he lumped the ball upfield then outpaced the defence over more than 60 metres and land an improbable fingertip finish.

“When he kicked the ball, I shouted ‘no!’, because I thought he should have passed it,” said former Wales fly-half Nicky Robinson on the BBC Scrum V Rugby World Cup podcast. “But he went on and scored. That’s what he has got.”

His second touchdown was also more than a bit memorable. Again, it was the Gloucester player’s Rolls Royce acceleration which truly did the damage, allowing him to surge past two defenders in pursuit of Liam Williams’ chip. Cleverly, he also managed to collect the bouncing ball above his head without breaking stride. Few other wings would have scored that try.

Warren Gatland believes he can get more out of his flying winger (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Later, it was noticeable Warren Gatland carefully went out of his way not to overdo his praise of the 22-year-old.

I’d like to see him with a little more ball in hand and having a bit of a crack,” said the New Zealander. “You see the pace he’s got. He’s very skilful with that kick chase and when the ball’s in front of him. He’s a player with a huge amount of potential going forward. He’s still young and we think he can get better and better.”

Call that good management of a player who was recently the subject of a BBC documentary, the online blurb for which spoke of “unfiltered access to rugby’s new superstar”. The film showed the youngster operating in a world of fast cars, brand deals and luxury holidays. “Being Louis Rees-Zammit is quite good at the minute,” he says at one point. Plenty enjoyed the programme, focusing as it does on a TikTok generation player savouring his time in the sun, both literally and metaphorically.

But it’s hard to please all of the people all of the time. “Not very good marks in Welsh rugby’s school of humility, unfortunately,” ran one WhatsApp message this writer received after the show had been aired. There were plenty more similarly framed social media comments.

What to think? Rees-Zammit is adding to his bank of experience in life and in rugby. Not everyone will applaud everything he does, and it isn’t the way plenty from a different generation would operate, but the choices are his.

Maybe we should all just accept the lad from Penarth is a burgeoning star for modern times, one who has achieved prominence early in his career and is dealing with it in his own way.  

Still, Gatland is wise to do what he can to help him, with the former schoolteacher streetwise enough to be conscious of the perils which can conspire against those who encounter off-field distractions and easy plaudits at a tender age. The coach will know, too, if perceptions are encouraged then they have to be lived up to, creating extra pressure. Rees-Zammit, then, is fortunate to have him in his corner.

Rees-Zammit is banking tries on far fewer involvements. Imagine the threat he would pose if Wales could bring him into play more.   

Equally, Wales are lucky to have the product of Cathedral School in Llandaff at their disposal.

His ability to ruin an opposition’s defensive game plan in the blink of an eye makes him a potentially lethal asset but the challenge remains to exploit his talents fully. Shipping the ball out to him five times in a game isn’t enough.

Shane Williams used to try to touch the ball a handful of times in the first five minutes of a match, perhaps by popping up at scrum-half or in areas where the opposition least expected him to appear. It didn’t just pep his own side; it sent nervous tremors through the opponents.

“If a wing has the ball upwards of 20 times in a game there is more than a decent chance he will score a try,” Williams once said.

Rees-Zammit is banking tries on far fewer involvements. Imagine the threat he would pose if Wales could bring him into play more.   

They were unable to make the most of a number of chances to free up both him and Rio Dyer against Georgia, on one occasion failing to exploit a two-man overlap because the men in possession did not draw their opponents before passing. It was elementary stuff. When Dyer eventually received the ball, he had little space and was duly forced off the road.

Taulupe Faletau left Stade de la Beaujoire with his left arm in a sling and will play no part in the rest of the Rugby World Cup (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

But the Dragons wing never gave up. When he wasn’t soaring after high kicks, he was chasing, often to great effect. He nailed Georgian number eight Tornike Jalagonia from the first kick-off and caught up with the same player as the game headed towards its final knockings. Dyer was also bold enough to venture off his wing in a performance which underlined Wales are not without options out wide.  

Injuries to Taulupe Faletau and Gareth Anscombe took the edge of the coaches’ satisfaction, but Tommy Reffell issued a timely reminder of his quality with a series of impressive possession steals. After Georgia tighthead Beka Gigashvili thundered into him and Nick Tompkins, Reffell somehow pilfered the ball like a magician plucking a rabbit from a hat. Not even Tompkins seemed to know what was happening, while the prop just appeared bemused.     

Reffell couldn’t have done much more, and has been rewarded with a start. According to the famed inventor Thomas Edison, opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like hard work. Last weekend, the Leicester Tigers’ openside turned up with his sleeves rolled up and took his chance with both hands

Can he and Jac Morgan operate successfully together in the back-row this weekend, against a fearsome Argentine trio to boot? No one knows for sure, but Reffell merits the chance to find out, and of course the duo played together at age-grade level.

Faletau’s absence for the rest of the tournament is clearly a hefty blow to Wales, for the No 8 is a thoroughbred player and no team can have enough of those. But injuries happen and the best teams adapt.

Wales won a Six Nations Grand Slam without Faletau in 2019 and Aaron Wainwright showed against England in Cardiff in the summer he can excel in the position.

Argentina will be quietly confident. But Gatland is hunting a third World Cup semi-final from four attempts with Wales and there are few better at preparing teams for big games and convincing players they can win.

When Gatland said the Welsh squad wasn’t ready to go home, he meant it. They have unfinished business in Paris.

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Bob Marler 247 days ago

Get pump tackled more often?

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