March 7, 2016

Influence of the X-Factor Player

Written by:
Dan Ritchie

When you look through successful teams; there are a number of factors that contribute towards their success. Dedication, hard-working players and coaches, good tactics, a healthy training environment, good leadership, effective strength and conditioning – the list can go on. You would say most sides possess all of the above traits in any sport, however what is it that splits teams from being good to being great? Sometimes it can be hard to explain or articulate into words. I believe the answer is ‘X-Factor’ or players who possess ‘X-Factor’, but how do you define this term?

Defining X-Factor:

When you type X Factor into google you are immediately hit with links relating to the successful TV series that centres on musical talent and if I’m honest it isn’t the worst way to spend a Sunday evening on the couch (especially when Delta Goodrem is hosting). Searching a little more specifically and you arrive at Cambridge dictionary’s definition of X Factor: a quality that you cannot describe that makes someone very special (Cambridge Dictionary).

What does this look like in a sporting context? A player with exceptional speed or strength, a player who possesses a skill set that is unmatched by any teammate or opponent or simply someone who has the ability to make something out of nothing can be referred to as having X Factor.

If you look at the sides who have won major rugby trophies over the last few years – Toulon have a team that rivals most people’s fantasy league teams on PlayStation 2 – there is no shortage of X Factor characteristics here. Names like Giteau, Armitage(s), Bastareuad, O’Connor, Habana and Fernandez Lobbe are world class players who have the ability and at any given time to make something out of nothing. Unfortunately not everyone has Toulon’s budget, so looking at Super Rugby may perhaps give us a more comprehendible understanding of the impact of X Factor players.

The 2015 Super rugby champions were the Highlanders; a real feel good story about a franchise who appeared to fly under the radar in New Zealand behind the recent success of the Crusaders and Chiefs. Their squad was full of hardworking players who earned their starts through good performances in the ITM cup. Having senior players such as Ben Smith, Aaron Smith and John Hardie for younger players to look up to; set a tone as far as expectations and standards within the group. Given it is a professional level, one would assume that every other squad in Super Rugby is littered with players of the calibre of Smith and Hardie. What was the point of difference for the Highlanders?

John Hardie of Edinburgh and Scotland

2015 saw the coming of age of several Highlanders players who are genuine match winners; possessing that X Factor. Patrick Osborne, Waisake Naholo and Malakai Fekitoa did things in games most players can only dream of. As outside backs, they all possess speed, strength and a skill set that allows them to attract players and offload the ball, increasing their try scoring opportunities. In the forward pack Nasi Manu has similar attributes. For Scottish fans, Nasi Manu and John Hardie have been big contributors to Edinburgh’s run this season on the back of their efforts with the Highlanders. Hardie has been incredible for Scotland throughout the World Cup last year and recently the Six Nations, New Zealand Rugby’s loss is most certainly Edinburgh and Scotland’s gain.

Go back to the 2014 Waratahs title winning squad. The tahs had classy, reliable players such as Bernard Foley, Michael Hooper, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Nick Phipps and Dave Dennis who held their squad together and set similar standards to those of Ben Smith and John Hardie. As you delve deeper into their squad you realise the incredible talent the Tahs have. When Australian rugby fans think X Factor; two names that seem synonymous with this label are undoubtedly Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau. Both these players possess a skill set that when its firing can be near impossible for defences to stop. Folau possess speed, size, and ability to change direction as well as almost unmatched aerial and kicking skills he honed during a stint playing AFL. Every time Folau gets his hands on the ball, anything can happen – positive or negative. Kurtley Beale possess a catch, pass and off load skill set that most inside backs can only dream of. He does appear erratic at times, but when he produces moments of genius, people sit there and ask ‘how did he do that?’

Israel Folau, alongside Kurtley Beale made life difficult for defences in 2014.

Two other recent teams to win super rugby were the Chiefs (2012, 2013) and Reds (2011). The chiefs had an impressive roster, however the name Sonny-Bill Williams is the one most remember. As far as athletes go, there isn’t much Williams can’t do. In Rugby League, he burst onto the scene as a teenager with the Bulldogs as a centre who had a great step and offload, NRL supporters couldn’t believe what such a young player could do. He has continually improved this skill set and combined with his speed and size, he can be one of the most destructive players in any code on any given day. Flick pass offloads amongst heavy traffic, ankle breaking side steps and massive hits are some of the qualities that make him special.  Quade Cooper is another player who possesses incredible passing, offloading, ankle breaking side steps and kicking skills that are the envy of every one of his opponents. Like Beale, Cooper can be unpredictable in a positive and negative way. His skill set is matched by very few players in the world.

Michael Morgan's incredible off load allowed the Cowboys to win the NRL Grand Final.

Despite players like Beale, Cooper, Fekitoa, Naholo and Osborne having the ability to have make game changing errors (like all players); it is the ability to win games out of nowhere that enables their teams to separate themselves from their opposition. The X Factor impact each year is what enables teams to make finals and win the big games. The 2015 National Rugby League Grand final in Australia had an incredible finish. With time expired, North Queensland Five-eight Michael Morgan ran between two defenders and get an incredible off load away allowing his winger to score and send the game into extra time, where they eventually prevailed. Now a player who did not possess the skill to off load that way may not have been able to set up that try. If Morgan doesn’t off-load, the Cowboys don’t win that grand final, it’s that cut and dry.

It got me thinking about all the coaches you hear saying ‘stop throwing those silly flick passes!’ I believe if you are going to have players in your team capable of that skill; practise it and refine it. 8/10 times a pass like that may go to ground or result in a costly error, but I guarantee the 2/10 times where the pass goes to hand and you score and win the game; you won’t even remember those other 8 times.

Read part 2 here!

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