Earning the right to go wide

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Earning the right to go wide is a mantra used by Warren Gatland, coach of the Wales rugby union side, and is believed to have been important in their 2008 success in winning the six nations 'grand slam' - defeating England, France, Ireland, Scotland and Italy. [1]The meaning of the phrase is that as a team, when you have possession of the ball, you must first go forward before the ball should be passed out to the fast-running wingers.

More generally, the mantra has come to mean that if you want to say something controversial or do something risky, you must earn the right to be heard with sympathy by a strong history of solid and useful work for the community that you hope will listen and support you.

Rugby union is a very physical 'contact sport'; teams are a mixture of strong, heavy forwards and lighter fast-running backs. In rugby union, "earning the right to go wide" generally means keeping possession with the heavier forwards through successive phases of play, taking the ball progressively downfield towards the opposing touchline. This tactic "wraps up" the opposition in defence in the centre of the field, and needs solid, hard "grunt" work - aggressive running by the forwards in short bursts. When tackled, usually by other forwards, the player in possession must recycle the ball quickly, either by a short pass out of the tackle to another player - usually another forward, or by ensuring that his team regains possession after a tackle by placing the ball behind his body as he is tackled so that his teammates can win the ball back from the ensuing ruck. Each forward in turn will try to 'break the gain line' before being tackled, so moving the ball slowly downfield. To counter this, the defense must tackle aggressively - trying to loosen the ball in the tackle, and to push the forward back in the tackle so that he falls behind the ball; this is physically exhausting, and draws defenders into the 'breakdown'. The breakdown is the phase of play when the ball falls to ground after a tackle; the defenders will seek to ensure that, by outnumbering the offense at the breakdown, they have a chance of 'turning over possession'.

While the forwards steadily gain ground, the half-backs, who direct the overall team tactics, patiently wait for gaps to appear in the defensive line as defenders are drawn out of position. When an opportunity arises, the half-backs will pass the ball quickly out to the fast-running backs who can, if they are fast and skillful enough, exploit them. In rugny union, the ball cannot be passed forward, so moving the ball to the backs means a loss of territory that must be regained by running in space[2]

A key element in the success of Wales in 2008 was the play of winger Shane Williams [3], who finished the 2008 season as the leading international try scorer in the history of Welsh rugby, after scoring his 41st try for the national side in just 58 appearances. Shane Williams was named the International Rugby Board "player of the year" for 2008[4]. Shane Williams is a player very much in the tradition of Welsh rugby union - fast and elusive, with a devastating sidestep. "Shane petrifies people," according to Ieuan Evans, another great Welsh winger of an earlier vintage [5][6]. Other great wingers in Wales' history have included Dewi Bebb, Gerald Davies, JJ Williams, John Bevan and Gareth Thomas, but Shane Williams is thought by some to be the best ever[7]. However the Welsh backline included others capable of exciting attacking play, including full back Lee Byrne - said by some to be the best full back in the world in 2009, and possibly the greatest full back that Wales has ever produced - a controversial comparison with Welsh rugby legend JPR Williams[8]

Wales is a small country, for whom rugby union is generally regarded as the national game. In the 1970's, when rugby union was a strictly amateur game, the national team enjoyed a decade of success. However, when the game turned professional, Wales found it difficult to compete against the much larger rugby-playing nations of England and France. However some small nations continued to do well - particularly New Zealand; rugby players to New Zealand are much like tulips are to The Netherlands. Wales recruited Warren Gatland from New Zealand to coach the national side in November 2007 [9]

References

  1. Six Nations 2008 bbc,co.uk
  2. Lions places are on the line for Welsh hopefuls walesonline.co.uk
  3. Shane Williams Wales Rugby Union
  4. Shane Williams: world-beaterThe Independent 20 November 2008
  5. Williams 'X-factor' vital - Evans bbc.co.uk
  6. Wales must hit ground running against Springboks "It does not get much bigger than this. Wales v South Africa; The Grand Slam winners against the world champions."
  7. Shane Williams hailed the greatest Wales winger of all-time Sunday Mirror 11 January 2009
  8. Byrne: Full-back on fire " The Welsh full-back is a Lions shoo-in and ready to join the greats" Timesonline 7 December 2008
  9. Wales's winner from Waikato The Guardian 27 January 2008]