Power Wingers

The power winger is somewhat of a rarity in the modern game.

It comes down to talent identification more than anything else and you’ll see why when we define what a power winger actually is. For me, a power winger has to be 6’2 or above and north of 92kg with good power – acceleration in particular – with top-end speed being less of a worry. Do you see the issue? When most underage teams discover, say, a 17-year-old 6’3″, 105kg rugby player showing up to training, it’d take a tough (or extremely well resourced) coach to resist the urge to play that player in the forwards.

I had experience of this when I was in Italy. I was at a youth blitz in 2013 for lads in the area to come and try playing rugby to see if it was something they and, almost more importantly, their parents would enjoy. I was talking to a lovely couple on the sideline from Croatia who had moved to the Veneto 10 years prior and thought their 15-year-old son might enjoy rugby, as the father was a massive fan.

The size of that lad.

He was close to 6’4″ and looked really well put together. I can’t remember what he weighed in at but it was above 13 stone. At 15. If I hadn’t half recognised the young fella from seeing him in his school uniform in town a few times earlier in the year, I’d have thought they were having me on. He had great burst acceleration, a really good top-end stride and loved running with the ball. Our coaches loved him too, obviously, but felt that he’d be better off in the back row because that kind of size and power doesn’t come along all that often. In fact, given that he probably had another inch or two of growth in him and might even turn out to be a second row, reckoned the underage coach. A second row with that kind of explosivity and pace? They don’t come around all that often. I agreed with him. I mean, they don’t come around all that often.

But the young lad wasn’t suited to the pack. We tried him at #8 but he was never comfortable jumping in the lineout. He didn’t really like tackling all that much either and just couldn’t get right with the scrummaging aspect. He was quickly written off as being too soft for the forwards and drifted away from the game within a year.

We needed size in the forwards so saw his height and weight and thought – splendido! – but he wasn’t suited to what we needed from a forward. He wanted to run onto the ball in space and when he did that, few lads at his age-grade could stop him but we wanted his size and power closer to the middle of the field. Throw in his discomfort at the set-piece and it just didn’t suit him.

I still think about that player. What a mistake I made at the time and what a power winger he could have made.

If we look at the top power wingers plying their trade around Europe right now, we can see that Luca’s size profile would have really stacked up.

George North – 6’4″/109kg
James Lowe – 6’2″/105kg
Duhan Van Der Merwe – 6’4″/105kg
Taqele Naiyaravoro – 6’5″/132 kg
Nemani Nadolo – 6’5″/137kg
Timoci Nagusa – 6’2″/100kg

Now obviously, just because he’s the same height and weight – more or less – as some of these players doesn’t mean he would have made it as a pro, let alone become a top player, but it’s this kind of decision that faces a lot of youth coaches and underage systems. A lot of the players on this list – and some of the guys I haven’t mentioned like Trevor Ismael – are either South African or of Islander descent. That makes sense too because larger players are generally more common in South Africa and in players of Fijian, Tongan or Samoan descent so there’s less pressure to move players inside because of their size. My point is, they usually have more than enough size in the pack as it is so if you have a guy who looks like a forward but doesn’t play like one, you don’t feel the need to convert a winger into a backrow or, if they’re big enough – like Naiyaravoro and Nadolo – even into the second row. That isn’t always the case elsewhere.

In much the same way that “smaller” back row players are sometimes encouraged to move into the front row – Ellis Genge, Malcolm Marx and, lately, Ronán Kelleher – larger backs can sometimes be shoehorned into the pack with the idea that if you can build on their size you can make a set-piece weapon of them and, crucially, keep their skillset, pace and explosivity for open phase play.

Sometimes that works out and you get a good hybrid player – Jeremy Loughman going from midfield to prop and Thomas Ahern going from the backs to the second row if you want recent Munster examples – but, as we saw with Luca and guys like Hacjivah Dayimani in South Africa, it doesn’t always work out if the back doesn’t take to his new position and/or the accompanying set-piece roles.

So what do we look for in power wingers?

First, we need to see excellent straight-line power. It’s not much good having a big winger that can’t handle a bit of contact in the wider channels so you need to make sure your guy can run the 5m tramline like a train on a railroad.

You aren’t going to derail a train that easily and when Van Der Merwe gets the ball in the wider channels, there aren’t very many who can match him.

And when you’ve got that extra bit of pace – like Trevor Ismael (6’3″/95kg) here – you can make a break, preserve the isolation with your size and then use your pace to finish.

Any power winger has to be able to handle that side on contact in the trams. Ismael shows another good example here;

Two fairly substantial side on shots from #9 and #2 don’t manage to stop him but it’s not just straight-up power – his footwork pre-contact ensures he takes the contact on his terms.

Very few players handle side on shots like Taqele Naiyaravoro.

That’s a key point about a power winger – you have to be able to dominate that side on contact or, like everyone else, you’ll get tripped to the floor where you’re the same size as everyone else. Naiyarovoro – and Nadolo – are really difficult to take low from a side-on position because of how wide they are across the hips and thighs. Going below the knee on these guys is risky and technically very difficult because their stride is so long and powerful.

Even then, the best power wingers have a habit of making even good tackles look like they have no business being on the same pitch as them.

The best thing about being a power winger is that you don’t always need to use footwork or deception. Sometimes just accelerating onto the ball and letting your pace and size do the rest is the best play.

Here’s Van Der Merwe making his 105kg work for the money.

Arnold gets a decent shot on him here but he can’t stop his momentum or hold him on the floor. Once he gets back up Billy Holland – a second row – struggles to contain his burst acceleration.

Nadolo is another freak example. Look at this;

A lot of this can’t be coached. His strength, that acceleration, that top-end pace at 6’5″ and 21 stone – that’s all uncoachable stuff.

The first defender does a decent job of going for Nadolo’s hip/thigh to try and chop him here but well, look for yourself.

Physics 1, Rugby Tackle Technique 0.

Ultimately, if you’re lucky enough to have a power winger in your side then you have a key offensive weapon that every side wants but few teams actually have. Munster have tried to find a player like this for a number of years – Gerhard Van Der Heever was one with big potential but injuries killed him – and currently have Liam Coombes who might match that critieria in the next year or two. He certainly has the height, acceleration and looks to have decent power too.

Leinster have James Lowe and might well have had Conor Nash (6’6″/92kg) coming through their academy if he’d chosen rugby over AFL. Adam Byrne fits the bill with regards to size but he’s been overshadowed by Lowe at blindside wing and doesn’t have the defensive chops for the second full-back role that playing on the right-wing often entails these days.

If you can find and use power wingers effectively, it can mitigate for lack of size and heavy carrying power elsewhere, so it’s a valuable asset to have in your starting XV.

I’ll cover how best to use power wingers and identify potential power wingers in the next instalment of this series.