In defence of big Dell

Wendell Sailor’s rugby union career is probably over, but the man who should be cursing him the most is the one who is praising his skill the most.

No one has more reason to feel bitter than Waratahs coach Ewen McKenzie because Sailor’s positive test and subsequent withdrawal from the squad a few hours before kick-off against the Canes a week ago, certainly derailed the Tahs season.

But McKenzie showed his maturity and his class as an individual when assessing Sailor, the player. McKenzie also showed how well the Australian players are analysed and I know that you won’t be able to get the same information out of the South African national coaching structure about every South African winger in the Super 14.

McKenzie, in his column in the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday, had this to say …

I am disappointed with Wendell Sailor but I am also disappointed with the posse of people who are revelling in the opportunity to kick a man when he is down.

I won’t cop this notion that Wendell is a poor footballer. People making this assertion are caught up in the drama of character assassination and, unfortunately, confuse that with footballing performance.

The ARU summaries for 2006 give you a clear idea of Wendell’s contribution to the Waratahs and why he left a big hole in our side last weekend.

Out of the Australian wingers Mark Gerrard, Clyde Rathbone, Peter Hynes, Drew Mitchell, Lote Tuqiri, Digby Ioane and Haig Sare, Wendell is the most successful tackler with an 88 per cent strike rate. Other Test candidates, notably Gerrard (75 per cent), Rathbone (74 per cent), and Mitchell (68 per cent), seem to be a little off the pace here.

Break this percentage down and you will also find that Dell makes more dominant tackles than any other winger and also involves himself four times as often in contesting opposition tackles and rucks. Cynics will say perhaps this is not necessary but it does indicate a willingness to roll up his sleeves and get dirty in an unrewarded part of the game.

Tackle schmackle, you say, what about attack? Wendell actually runs a close second to Mark Gerrard in most categories. Mark has the most carries (11.4 per game) while Wendell has 9.7 per game. Carries are one thing but it’s what you do while carrying the ball that is also important. Wendell will break through 4.6 tackles per match while the next best is Digby Ioane with 3.0 per match.

Clean line breaks are topped by Gerrard at 1.5 per match and Wendell is second on 1.3. I’m not trying to bore you with numbers but it is important to understand that at the very least there is a real contribution being made.

Ah, but he can’t kick, I hear you say. This is not a strong suit but he is not alone. Apart from Mark Gerrard, none of the others has kicking numbers greater than Wendell when on the wing.

He comes third in passing, but is easily the greatest offloader of the football. He has created offloads twice as often as any other outside back, a skill that former Wallabies coach Rod Macqueen has highlighted as a major deficiency in Australian rugby.

Despite criticisms, Wendell’s turnover rate is in fact second lowest. Error rates by Mitchell and Gerrard are higher per match.

Where Wendell distinguishes himself above the rest is his work at the breakdown. Critics of “leaguies”, our leather patch brigade, might be interested to know that the effectiveness of Wendell in the tackle contest in attack is double that of his colleagues.

He is more involved in the breakdown in both attack and defence, which tells me he is a more complete player, because he does not shirk the tough stuff. Purists will tell you you don’t want your wingers involved in such dark places, but if you want to earn respect, particularly from your forwards, then mixing it here is an important aspect in a team contribution.

Last week’s Matthew Burke Cup awards night kicked off with a highlights reel and Wendell featured prominently. He wasn’t there in person but it was a reminder that Wendell’s off-field dramas shouldn’t be confused with his footballing ability. He can play.