Plight of the American Winger.

The Plight of the American Winger

If you are not a winger you really won’t be empathic with the winger’s plight, but wingers have an issue which impacts your team and American rugby as a whole, and that is the winger is often severely under utilized and or in effectively utilized in the 15s game.

Let our story begin with a guy who can demonstrate this point. Chris Nelson. Chris took up the game at 22 after playing college football in Canada. He earned honors while with Fresno RFC and established a reputation of being a dynamic rugby player. After two full years’ with Fresno RFC where he played hooker, he took advantage of an opportunity to play a season in New Zealand.

Chris took up residence in Wellington, New Zealand and joined Tawa Rugby Club. Initially, he was going to work to earn a spot as a hooker (which was what he’d played even in 7s). However the keen eye of Coach Steve So’Oialo saw an opportunity for Chris at wing. The coach felt that on the wing Chris could see the game flow better and his athleticism, being a former forward will allow him to get around the pitch hit the rucks and use those skills more effectively. 

Chris it should be noted for a guy his size is fast, fit, strong and built like a hooker.  

Coach So’Oialo's initial move was correct. Chris blossomed on the wing and earned a reputation down there as a quality wing (but more so that he was a American Hooker, turned standout wing all in one season). Chris ended that campaign by earning the club’s honors for Most Improved Player.

After a season in New Zealand Chris returned home to California. Prior to his return there was a lot of excitement from his home club in anticipation of what the returning Chris (now as a winger) could do for their NorCal DI side. There were great expectations for what he was going to do.  There was one voice however who had expressed concern with all the expectations. Walt Pickrell, who use to train Chris and coached the Fresno State Men’s Club for three seasons warned that wings just don’t get the ball enough and that the ball just isn’t move with the necessity and expedience in American rugby to the wings. He warned that, “Chris while a great weapon, he’ll spend most his time waiting on the wing for something to come his way”.

Chris played six (6) games with Fresno this season before departing for New Zealand again this past February. In the three months he was stateside, Chris exparianced a great deal of frustration. These were in part becaue of the desire to come home and preformce and show that he had developed into a better player. It was also because he didn’t want to let his club down. Chris left back to New Zealand feeling a great deal of frustration in not meeting his own expectations, but also in those that his team had for him.
The question is why? In six games Chris was mostly neutralized (and held to one try). Not because of the opposition defense but, by his own side’s attack not including some great wings. In those six games most of the time Chris got the ball from deep kicks, broken down plays, plays where he moved around to find opportunity to get involved, but only a few times a game did the ball move through the hands to him on the wing. The same was for his opposition and the slow movement of the ball on their side allowed him to be in position to make tackles on his opponent.  In total he had the ball in hand no more that 4-5 times a game. Why?

We let us explore why wings in the American style of rugby don’t get the ball and are underutilized.  This is their plight.

To help us tackle this question we reached out to Vaughan Holdt. Vaughan is from New Zealand (Auckland) but spent two season playing fly-half in NorCal (2009 and 2010). So he has seen both play in the USA and New Zealand.  When we posed the questions to Vaughan he said this “The wingers in the USA are definitely under utilized. From my recollection to a few years back there weren’t many teams using their wings at all. Most of the time I remember opposition wingers getting the ball when we kicked to them. I didn’t see the ball go through the hands to the wings ever”.

Vaught (who began as a wing in New Zealand) believed that wingers in general are under utilized, even in New Zealand. He feels they should be and can be used more in the modern game.  “Using the blind side wingers is an easy way to start getting them more involved without changing too much. It's also an easy way to get an overlap straight away. There are some very simple moves which are really effective in using the blind side wingers on the open side” noted Vaught.

Vaughn deduced the issue in American rugby to the fact that wingers aren’t used enough is because of their experience and limited knowledge of the game.  Most wingers he feels are not experienced or have the knowledge of the game to see how they can get involved. “I think a lot of teams are guilty of putting their less experienced players on the wing where the players think they have to stay throughout the game.  That also happens here in New Zealand”.  Vaughn believes increasing the understanding of the game for everyone would help in knowing when and how to use wingers more effectively.  “In the past 5 years you’ve see that they are becoming more involved in the game. They should be given licenses to roam of their wing to put themselves into a better position to be an option” says Vaught. He does note that before giving that licensed you need to make sure you’ve trained and educated that winger to the game first.

Frik Fourie who coaches Fresno RFC,  is on the NorCal Pelican’s (select side) coaching staff and who is a former winger with experience at a high level in South Africa has a bit of a different theory. Fourie who only got to coach Chris Nelson a few games (when he was still a hooker) and then six as wing agreed that Chris was under utilized. He also takes the position of Vaught in that if you have a knowledgeable winger, you give them permission to get off the wing and go find opportunities when appropriate. However, he notes that is not enough. He sees a few issues with the wings under utilization. One is the lack of depth on the attack from the back line, which makes it difficult to get the ball out fast or runners to have room to operate. He also attributes it a bit to the football mentality. Too many players are hesitant to make a pass he says and instead think about just picking up the territory. This he says “it [the mentality] keeps the ball from moving wide to wings. Guys get the ball and instead of moving it, instinctively want to plow ahead and then get tackled and the ball movement slows or dies”. “Guys” he says “still think in in terms of ‘yardage’ versus the concept of open play and that’s true even with a most of the American born Islanders playing as backs”.  Frik notes that Chris had developed skills and a style of play in New Zealand that some of his peers were not accustomed to, nor for that matter most teams. His observations has been that lot of wings are athletic but are reduced to standing and waiting for someone to get them the ball like a wide receive in football. Frik was of the opinion that the wings are a every now and then opportunity weapon often in American rugby mind, and not viewed as a part of every attack as you may see in southern hemisphere type of play.

Jason Raven is the former captain for the USA Eagles 7s side, who also played two international matches in 15s as a wing and continues to coach and develop players weighed in.  When asked the questions with regard to wings, Raven responded without hesitation saying “Absolutely wings are under utilized”!  He said that the main reason is that there just isn’t enough work done on the skills required to get the ball out to the wings (in a position that they can be effective with the ball). “Most guys skills limit them from the ability to move the ball quickly, to make clean passes and to make long passes. The skills have to be developed” says Raven. He also attributes it to coaching at times too. Coaches may not be calling plays or developing a game plan to use their wings and/or the coaches may not have the skills necessary to use all their backline players.

 Chris Nelson with Tawa RFC. New Zealand 2015. 

 Chris Nelson with Tawa RFC. New Zealand 2015. 

Raven believes there are at least two things that can be done to remedy the issue which include improving the coaching stateside (by having them focus on the training techniques needed to develop the skills in players to move the ball). He also says that wings themselves have to be developed with the skills so once they do get the ball they can finish properly.

Let’s observe, most rugby players in America do come from a non-rugby background which means they need time and game time to learn, understand and grow.  Often wingers on most clubs are either new players, or very athletic players who are expected to rely on athleticism to succeed.  A good winger is usually a guy who is not just athletic, but rugby smart.  Someone who can see what the opposition is doing and can also see opportunities unfolding. Athletic but inexperienced wings can’t do that and thus they stand and wait for the ball (which rarely comes).

Walt the former Fresno State coach said “the ball skills in general are not as good as they need to be in order to move the ball by hand fast from the breakdown to the wing to take advantage of gaps, overlaps, etc. The ball moves slowly,  if cleanly and that time delay neutralizes the wing”. He also warned that the mentality of the backline is to attack with ball in hand and try and get around defender by running latterly versus attacking gaps, creating space, and moving the ball.

The issue is then is in part the type of players we put on the wing (often inexperienced and highly athletic), a mentality based on football which is if you have the ball in hand keep it and try and get as far down the field as you can (not often factoring the open space, the lack of support, the turnover), and then to some extend the ability of great backline runners to have the ball skills to move the ball quickly out to those often athletic wings.

Why is the winger so under utilized in American rugby? There is no definitive answer, but its beneficial to ask why! There are however clear strategies to how to eliminate their plight and get them into the game. We know we can get people playing younger so it’s easier to develop skills, to gain understanding of the game, and counteract that football mindset. We know we can develop players more before we thrust them into the action at the wing with only their athleticism to go off of, we can also move away from how we’ve always done things in the US, and look at more effective ways to play the game.

In the end you may say that maybe Chris was a fluke? His success in becoming a wing in New Zealand and having success there and then not meeting his expectations back in California was less with American rugby and more to do with him? It’s possible. He placed a great deal of expectations on himself and there was a great deal placed on him. That may have had him trying to do too much, or get frustrated in not meeting all those expectations and over compensate.  However since his return to New Zealand and Tawa Rugby the now 5’9” 218lb winger has scored 9tires in 8 games and his reserve premier side was at 8-0 when we last spoke to him.