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by Gavin Hickie, Head Coach, Dartmouth Men
The Role of Wing
Speed merchants and traditionally the top try scorers for the team, Wings are increasingly involved in the physical elements of the game.
Relentless in their search for space to give the team attacking options, they can have 50-60 sprints in a match a lot of the time without getting the ball. When they do get possession, they are experts at evasion with good offloading skills.
Their speed is also put to good use on defensive duties, be that having to react to a situation, clear out a ruck or get back to defend a counter attack or kick.
Skills required to play Wing
Pace is an essential part of a wing’s toolbox but they are more than just speed merchants. Positional awareness, ball handling and first class evasion skills are all part of a wing’s repertoire. They need to be able to anticipate and shut down opposition line breaks in defence and be alert to any opportunity to attack.
A wing’s time on the ball can be limited but impactful in terms of points on the scoreboard. Their challenge is to be in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the few opportunities they get. This takes tactical and positional awareness to find space while not becoming isolated or leaving your team exposed.
Having the ability to pass the ball from both sides is a prerequisite for all players at the top level, but wings must be very comfortable catching any type of pass that is thrown their way. As the last man in the attacking line, wings tend to be the recipients of long passes from teammates who are under pressure from opposing defenders. This means wings must fully understand the importance of depth and ensure they do not overrun the ball carrier. Catching kicks is also a vital part of the wing’s game.
An effective wing can influence a game through more than their attacking skills. As the most mobile players on the field, the wings make an effective defensive contribution through their ability to track and tackle opponents at pace.
Wing’s Role in Attack
A winger’s pace, footwork and agility are essential components to allow them to evade defenders and gain territory. Blindside wings will often be found ‘hunting’ on the outhalf’s inside shoulder, looking for any potential attacking opportunity, while the openside wing will usually be the player charged with finishing off the team’s set plays. Wings should always be in support of the ball carrier and are more often than not, the team’s leading try scorers.
Wing’s Role in Defence
The Back 3 work as a ‘Pendulum’ in defence – when one wing joins the defensive line, the fullback will move across the pitch to cover the space behind that wing, while the opposite wing will move back to cover the space vacated by the fullback. In defence it’s about working as a team of three and working the pendulum. When one player goes up, two drop to different angles, it’s about working together.
This fluid movement is dependent on constant communication between the players to know where each other are on the field at all times. Constantly scan and communicate with your Back 3 in practice so it becomes natural in the game.
Five tips for playing wing from professionals
Tommy Bowe, Ireland: “High ball catching, kicking, passing are important but as a Back 3 player you need to work on all aspects of your game including running, outside breakdown rucking, and 1 on 1 tackling.”
Brett Thompson, USA: “If you stay in your head too much and do not analyse the opposing attack next thing you know a try is scored that could have prevented if you were in position.”
George North, Wales: “Players need to be able to pass off both hands, working the weaker hand a lot to try and get it up to the same level. Also the ability to kick off both feet is important. It’s always important not to just train your good hand and foot but look at your weaker side as well.”
Blaine Scully, USA: “It is important to ‘look for work’ as a wing and not merely camp on your side of the field and wait for the game to come to you.”
Marland Yarde, England: “It's good to have freedom of movement and getting yourself around the field. As soon as there is turnover ball and the opponent has possession it's about getting back to the wing and communicating with your full back and the guys beside you and making sure you are in position.”
What makes a good wing a great wing?
There are a lot of good and very good rugby players but there are only a handful of rugby players that stand out as great players. These are players who excel in their position and can make a substantial impact in a game, consistently throughout a season, and over a number of years. These players have helped shape the game.
The individual skill sets and physical attributes of the player, often determines the type of wing the athlete is. Jonah Lomu is an example of a large wing who had devastating power and pace to finish. Habana Bryan is an example of the classic finisher. A wing who has the ability to finish tries from anywhere on the field. Ben Smith is an example of the wing/Full back is a great all around footballer who is solid in all facets, capable of playing multiple positions, while extremely effective as a wing. Each example may have different styles but are all very effective in what they do well. Blaine Scully, USA & Leicester Tigers
Confidence, believing in your own ability to take on the opposition, getting the ball in your hands as forum as you can makes a good Winger a great one. Shane Williams used to get the ball into his hands 20+ times, Wingers are a huge threat to the opposition so it is better to go get the ball in your hands than wait for it to come to you. Tommy Bowe, Ireland & Ulster
One thing that a make a good wing a great wing is the ability to finish. Everyone else on the inside does a lot of work to open up space and when you get the ball you need to make something happen. Bryan Habana not only has the speed but also the agility and power that makes him a super threat every time he touches the ball. Brett Thompson, USA & Edinburgh
Someone with good vision and good decision making skills. Sitiveni Sivivatu popped up in the right areas and made the right decisions when he got the ball as first or second receiver and was able to visualise the sequence in the field. That's a very rare talent. Marland Yarde, England & Harlequins
A great wing needs all round good skill set, pace, ability to read the game in attack and defence. Being a threat is an important part of it as well. George North, Wales & Northampton Saints
I was playing 7 in college, picked up a collarbone injury. I came back faster than before, moved into the Backs and onto the wing and I haven't looked back from then! I enjoy the time and space you are granted on the wing. It’s so limited in the elite game but you take whatever you can get. I like getting my hands on the ball and having a good run.” George North, Wales & Northampton Saints
I actually choose to play 7 but they realised I wasn't hitting any rucks so they thought I should be on the wing. Playing wing gives me the opportunity to score tries, and it's one of the more exciting positions in rugby and I can exercise my skills in wide open spaces. Marland Yarde, England & Harlequi
I started playing centre when I was young and I was quick so they started moving me around the back line and I also played a lot at full back for my club back home. When I first played for the Argentina team they put me on the wing because I was playing 7s as well. Horacio Agulla, Argentina & Bath
I played 15 until my second year of Ireland U21's and the coach said he wanted to try me on the wing and I have been there since. Tommy Bowe , Ireland & Ulster
I started playing wing because I found it fit my athletic abilities the most and also it was the easiest position for me to get a chance at the professional level. What I like about the position is having a lot of space to attack. Being able to use your speed, footwork and fends to beat your defenders. It's also a great feeling to be able to finish off good team attack with a try. Brett Thompson , USA & Edinburgh
From a skill set perspective, it is the position I am most suited to. Wing allows the opportunity to use pace, open field running, and catch high balls. I love to roam the field and look for work, make a one on one tackles in the open field, and of course, score tries. Positionally it is challenging and tasks you to organize and communicate effectively to teammates inside you. While I have played other positions and enjoyed them, wing was the position I was meant to play.” Blaine Scully , USA & Leicester Tigers