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Coming off the long run: Wingers' worth weighed in wows

JEFF BAHMER
Last updated 17:00 18/09/2012
Lomu
JOHN SELKIRK/ Fairfax NZ
Jonah Lomu changed the role of the winger.

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The penultimate year of amateur rugby, 1995, saw the birth of a rugby superstar, a monster of Tongan descent named Jonah.

The devastating impact Jonah Lomu has had on the world rugby scene was emphatic and he significantly altered the role of the wing 3/4 position. Pace, power, skill, X-factor - the now necessary components to every international winger's game.

Following Lomu's dramatic introduction, one which England's Mike Catt will be forever haunted by, the Pacific Islands became a breeding ground for powerful, electric, dynamo wingers being scouted to play in New Zealand and Australia. Sitiveni Sivivatu, Digby Ioane, Joe Rokocoko, Lote Tuqiri and many others have since continued to thrill international audiences with their blockbusting speed and mesmerising skills.

It was apparent that these brands of wingers were heavily favoured in the mid-2000s and seemingly compulsory for selection in a Wallaby or All Black side.

This fixation on wingers of Island descent has filtered through to Super, NPC, Club and even First XV rugby. During this period even Southland played dual island wingers in Aisea Tuilevu and Alex Talea.

While the "wow" moments produced by these enigmatic players were abundant, I couldn't help question the emphasis that went on a winger's try-scoring ability as opposed to their on-field work rate. Rupeni Caucaunibuca, Marika Vunibaka, Fero Lasagavibau, Lome Fa'atau, Joeli Vidiri and countless more dazzling, exciting wingers at this time had very poor work rates. Plenty of tries, few runs and tackles. How often would we see big Joeli prop up on his opposite wing, clearing rucks or on fringe defence?

Conversely the likes of Tamati Ellison, Caleb Ralph, Ben Blair, Roger Randle and Scott Hamilton were a different style, often overlooked and consistently underrated. Less crowd pleasing, more conventional, and predictable but statistically far more sound.

Today the latter brand of wing have become ubiquitous at international level and have begun to usurp the Pacific Island excitement machines. Corey Jane and Richard Kahui were the preferred combination throughout the successful 2011 World Cup campaign - both very busy players made evident by their 2011 Super Rugby stats: Jane making 63 tackles, missing only 15, and 86 ball carries; Kahui 62 for 15 misses with 67 carries.

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With injuries to both men for the 2012 Irish series, the first of new coach Hansen's reign, the relative suitors were ready to answer the call. Zac Guildford, Ben Smith, Robbie Robinson and Hosea Gear were the men to fit the mould. These men compensate for a lack of raw pace and power with sled-dog work rates. While these players may have less enthralling Youtube highlight reels, the reliability factor is advantageous for selection.

However, perhaps the pendulum has swung back under Hansen, surprising the country with Hurricane Julian Savea's inclusion. Savea fits the "Lomu-like" profile nicely: big, strong, and possessing scintillating speed. Hansen was able to overlook Savea's 18 missed tackles from only 34 attempts and fewer carries than all of the previously named during Super Rugby due to his try-scoring strike rate of 80 per cent. With a hat-trick on debut there is much argument to be made over the most desirable brand of winger.

Jonah certainly left a legacy. Are the days of a Terry Wright or a Grant Batty being paid to play over? One thing is for certain though, the selection debate and Island abductions in the search for Jonah's heir will long continue.


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