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FEATURE Why the Wallabies cannot do without Will Skelton at the World Cup

Why the Wallabies cannot do without Will Skelton at the World Cup
11 months ago

There is huge, invisible border which splits professional rugby right down the middle, like a ripe melon. There are the leagues, like the Gallagher Premiership in England and the Top 14 in France, which follow a private ownership model, and are run by independent entities – the Ligue Nationale de France and Premiership Rugby. Then there are those nations where the administrative and marketing systems still lie within the governing orb of the national union itself, as they do in Ireland and New Zealand.

The first leads naturally to longer seasons (26 weeks in the Top 14 regular season), a higher proportion of foreign imports, and the much higher player salary scales that go with them. The second benefits from shorter regular seasons (18 weeks in the latest edition of the URC, 15 in Super Rugby Pacific), more limited overseas migration, and a tightly-controlled wage market. A top player in Ireland will probably earn only about 70 per cent of the money, via salary and endorsements, that he might make in France.

They are very different editions of the same professional game. While the rump of the Leinster players are home-grown (96 per cent of the squad are Ireland-qualified) and originate in the schoolboy rugby hotbed in and around Dublin, the Top 14 still depends heavily on the overseas market, despite the concrete academy pathway strides made via the JIFF (Joueurs Issus des Filières de Formation) quota system.

Where Leinster started the recent Champions Cup final with 15 Ireland-qualified players, all but one of whom had represented their country, the Stade Rochelais side which opposed them featured round a half-dozen of overseas ‘guns’: Springboks Raymond Rhule and Dillon Leyds in the back three, Samoan international UJ Seuteni at outside centre, All Black (and potential Wallaby?) Tawera Kerr-Barlow at scrumhalf, Fijian centre/openside ‘tweener’ Levani Botia and enormous Australian Will Skelton in the second row.

Take Skelton and Botia out of the equation, and the forward level drops from Olympian to the level of mere mortal. There would still be some outstanding athletes like Gregory Alldritt, Uini Atonio and Pierre Bourgarit in that pack, but the whiff of divine ambrosia, the extra je ne sais quoi would be absent.

Levani Botia
Fiji’s Levani Botia has proved an excellent get by La Rochelle over the past few seasons. (Photo by Getty Images)

La Rochelle shaded the bulk of the full Irish national side, wearing blue, by 27 points to 26 on Saturday. In contrast, France lost to Ireland featuring the usual Leinster starting majority in the second round of the Six Nations at the same venue back in February: by 32 points to 19, four tries to one. Go figure.

The truth is that at club level, it is still the quality of the foreign contingent that counts in France and England. Saracens became serial winners in Europe with the addition of overseas luminaries like Skelton, Vincent Koch, Liam Williams, Sean Maitland and the two Springbok Schalks, Brits and Burger.

As they have found this season, those names are the essential difference between a very good quarter-final, or semi-final side, and a championship-winning outfit. Without their six overseas starters, Stade Rochelais are not winning a European final, as good as they would still be.

Nobody has been more important to the club’s European emergence, and their three consecutive wins over Leinster, than ex-Waratah Will Skelton. His titan-like size is one thing: Skelton is a man-mountain at 6 feet 8 inches and 140 kilos. But if anything, his talismanic presence is even more important to the fortunes of La Rochelle, foretelling success: Skelton has now taken home three Champions Cup winners medals at two different clubs. He has cast the runes for first Saracens, and now La Rochelle.

It remains a mystery why there are still dissenting voices back home in Australia, who continue to throw rubber bricks at the prospect of his selection for the World Cup in September.

O’Gara felt he was so important that he catapulted the big Aussie straight into his starting XV for last year’s final, his first game back after what appeared to be a season-ending calf injury.

“It’s a massive boost. I don’t think you can overestimate what he will do for our team,” O’Gara said at the time. “There are very few players in the world like him.

“It’s been a really careful plan trying to get him to this stage. It’s delicate when you have a frame like he has.

“He’s ready to go. Obviously, he’ll be shy in game-time but there’s a serious professional hidden behind him, working in the shade.

“It’s a massive boost for our team, he gives us energy. I don’t think [the] opposition like playing him. Physically, he’s very difficult to play against so it’s a massive boost for us this week.”

Skelton rewarded his head coach by not only playing heroically, he lasted for the full 80 minutes as well.

Will Skelton was key for La Rochelle in last year’s European title win. (Photo By Julien Poupart/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

It remains a mystery why there are still dissenting voices back home in Australia, who continue to throw rubber bricks at the prospect of his selection for the World Cup in September. He has proved his worth time and time again at the highest level of the club/provincial game on the other side of the world. As the man himself commented before his selection for the November tour to Europe:

“Obviously, not being eligible is tough, not being able to put your hand up to play…

“You almost ask yourself if you’ve still got it, and [are] good enough. You want to test yourself against the best. It would be awesome to link up. If it happens, it happens.”

He could be asking himself the same question now. Fortunately, there is every chance that Eddie Jones will push Rugby Australia to shelve their three-man limit on overseas players for the World Cup, and that should make his selection certain. What La Rochelle and Leinster (to their cost) already know, the rest of the rugby world may be primed to find out in September.

The knock on Skelton has always been lineout: you would struggle to whip the newspaper from underneath his feet at lineout time, so heavy a lift is he.

Will Skelton was again a pivotal figure in the game at the Aviva Stadium last Saturday.

  • He finished second in ball carries (13), behind only number 8 Gregory Alldritt in the number of ball carries on both sides, and topped the offloading charts with three
  • He had eight touches at first receiver, with only outside-half Antoine Hastoy enjoying more (18)
  • He was first in defensive ruck attendances (8)
  • He won the most lineouts in the game (5), joint-first with Paul Boudehent and Jack Conan
  • He went through the whole 80 minutes penalty-free.

The knock on Skelton has always been lineout: you would struggle to whip the newspaper from underneath his feet at lineout time, so heavy a lift is he. But those five lineouts won in Dublin, tacked on to the three he collected in the semi-final versus Exeter, make selection around him – at the other three traditional ball-winning spots of numbers 5, 6 and 8 – a whole lot easier for Eddie Jones.

The foundations of his game are hiding in plain sight. There is the power ball-carrying which has caused Leinster so much grief in recent seasons: in Top 14 play this season, one in every five of Skelton’s carries results in a tackle bust – the same as Greg Alldritt – and the ratio of successful offloads is double: one in seven carries compared to Alldritt’s one in 15.

Power ball-carrying is not always a simple matter of winning collisions and breaking tackles, even though the big man amply flashed that ability in his November cameo against Ireland. In the following example, Skelton is only brought down by the fifth Ireland tackle attempt:

Heavy ball-carrying is also about influencing the numbers equation at the ruck. If the carry can put as many defenders on the ground as the attack has to commit to the cleanout, it will be in good shape for the next phase:

Skelton doesn’t make any metres on the carry, but he does put two Leinster defenders on the ground, and out of action for the next play. That two-vs-two equation gives Greg Alldritt the chance to line up one of Leinster’s smaller backs (No 10 Ross Byrne) in isolation further out.

The same principle recurred at a situation in the Leinster 22 later in the half:

Skelton skittles three home defenders at the first ruck, and 140-kilo prop Uini Atonio is already rubbing his hands gleefully at the prospect of running into Leinster’s diminutive scrumhalf Jamison Gibson-Park on the next phase. In both cases, Leinster openside Josh van der Flier (in the red cap) has to do emergency clean-up work at the tackle, and that removes him from the equation too.

It was not the only occasion where La Rochelle profited from the connection of their two jumbo-sized tight forwards on the carry:

Skelton offloads to Atonio in contact, then gets up off the deck to pile-drive his opposite number (South African Jason Jenkins) at the ensuing cleanout. There is more space and time for the men in yellow to play to the edge off lightning-quick ball on the next phase.

But if there is one area above all others where Will Skelton’s size and power truly counts, it is in the close-quarter work at ruck and maul, an area of relative weakness for the Wallabies in 2022:

The ex-Waratah is on the right of the receiver Paul Boudehent, first back-lifting, then leading the drive around the open-side corner. Whenever you see the picture in the screenshot, it represents a victory for the attacking side, with the blocker directly ahead of the receiver and primary maul defender (6’7, 125 kilo Jenkins) away from the thrust of forward progress.

It was no different as the game began to reach a crescendo around the hour mark:

The Aussie behemoth is again leading the drive and sealing Jason Jenkins well away from the scene of the action.

Will Skelton can be just as much of a nuisance when the ball is on the deck as he is when it is held up:

The Champions Cup final, and the Challenge Cup final, which preceded it on Friday evening, were more than games of rugby. Both involved teams from arguably the top two leagues in the Northern Hemisphere: two URC teams (Leinster and Glasgow Warriors) crossing swords with sides from the French Top 14 (Stade Rochelais and RC Toulon). They presented a contest which cut a deeper groove, a dispute between two very different models of the professional game.

The French teams relied heavily on foreign imports. 15 of the starters representing La Rochelle and Toulon have represented a country overseas and will do so in the future. That is the private ownership model: longer seasons and more matches to build gate revenues, more overseas imports to beef up playing squads, higher wage scales to attract the top talent.

Between them, Leinster and Glasgow only fielded two starters who were not either homegrown, or unable to qualify for Ireland or Scotland under the current residency rules. At club level, the Top 14 is winning the argument, with Toulon winning at a canter and La Rochelle scraping home at the death for second time in two years.

The progression upwards to the next level suits the union-governed model far better. There is still a more straightforward translation from Leinster to Ireland, or from the Crusaders to New Zealand down under than there is from La Rochelle, or even from Toulouse to Les Bleus. France swept the European Cup finals but Ireland won the Grand Slam, beating France convincingly along the way.

France is developing as much talent for its international rivals as it is for itself, and Will Skelton is a prime example. Skelton is now a three-time European Cup winner with Saracens and La Rochelle and has played all of his best rugby outside Australia. There is no doubt that he deserves to represent the Wallabies at the World Cup.

Can the French club system provide a springboard for triumph in the biggest international tournament in the world, played in its own backyard? Or will it fall down the same rabbit hole as English soccer – domestically rich in talent and revenue, but poor in international trophies? There may be cockerels rather than three lions on the shirt, but ‘Bill’ may still not be coming home anytime soon.


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