If we are not approaching the end for rugby’s specialists – in some positions at least – then they’ve definitely been put on notice.
This is a time of change in rugby, with a global calendar, southern hemisphere struggles, player welfare and the salary cap review just a few of the hot topics. And that was before anyone had even heard of COVID-19. The pandemic has merely served to highlight the fault-lines in many areas.
During this, one of the most enlightening comments made by Jan McGinity, the man responsible for recruitment at the elite end at Tigers, in a recent interview with LTTV was his opinion that there is now an added focus on versatility in the playing squad.
“The size of squad has come down,” he said, pointing to rising salaries. “There is a big push towards versatility and playing more than one position… that is a massive tick in a player’s box… versatility is a huge asset.”
It might not reach the extremes of Eddie Jones suggesting Lions wing Jack Nowell could go to flanker or Tom Youngs having to switch weekly between hooker and his previous role at centre, but in shrinking squads there is a certainly the need for fewer pegs to fill more holes.
Some players are likely to be valued purely on their versatility and others certainly on their lack of it.
Never has there been so much focus on value for money alongside quality.
There are already all-rounders in the Tigers squad with Jordan Taufua a valid option anywhere in the back row and Hanro Liebenberg a possible lock as well as flanker. Homegrown trio Harry Wells, Calum Green and Sam Lewis have all played at blindside and lock, and Nephi Leatigaga has already played on both sides of the front row.
In the backline, Telusa Veainu has played wing and full-back, as has young Freddie Steward, while Noel Reid and Tom Hardwick have experience at 10 and 12, and George Worth is a full-back or centre who has also played at 10. Ben Youngs has played his 250 senior games for the club at scrum-half but even he played a lot at fly-half on his way up the ranks – and made his England debut as a wing replacement.
Looking at the incoming, Cyle Brink could wear any shirt from six to eight, Zack Henry has a case to play in a couple of shirt in the backline and Nemani Nadolo is just as terrifying to tackle at centre as he is on the wing, with the added attraction of providing an extra kicking option.
The game has changed a lot in recent years, but there have also been some very adaptable predecessors at Welford Road, led by the likes of Logo Mulipola, Martin Castrogiovanni, Martin Corry and, of course, Austin Healey.
Both Logo and Castro were valuable in every sense, but their ability to play on both sides of the front row was almost immeasurable. Let’s not forget the value of Perry Freshwater and Alex Moreno too, even more so in the era of one replacement prop, while more recently Greg Bateman arrived as a hooker, moved to tighthead and is now considered at loosehead.
Former skipper Corry moved between six and eight but was equally at home in the second row, while back-rower Craig Newby memorably filled in at centre and, on another occasion, drop-kicked a conversion at Welford Road. Just the pity we didn’t also get a chance to see Steve Mafi run out at centre, where he had played for his Australia club who also used him to jump in the lineout and at the base of attacking scrums!
Healey was said to hate the word ‘versatile’ but it didn’t stop him playing Test rugby at nine, 10 and wing while also lining up at full-back on occasions at Tigers.
Leon Lloyd, Matt Smith and Ollie Smith all played wing and centre – Matt after early experience at fly-half and full-back – so it is not a brand-new phenomenon.
But it is one that will focus minds around the game when ‘bang for your buck’ is so important.