What’s in a Number?

In modern rugby, I feel that people get too hung up about the number on a players back. The perception that your number 10 simply has to be a goal kicker, the notion that your outside centre must possess blistering pace to be worth his salt, and my biggest irk, the fabled necessity for an ‘out and out 7’.

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As a lifelong back, I may not be in the position to comment too much on the intricacies of back-row play, but I have had enough of them winning me ball to form an opinion. To me, this need for a ‘grovelling’ open-side is absolute nonsense.

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The key to the perfect back row is balance. If you have a 6 and 8 who both hang out on the 10’s shoulder going for the bosh line types, you are going to need a 7 who hits rucks and jackals like a man possessed, simply because if he doesn’t, no one will. If you had a back row of 3 Neil Backs, or a trio of Martyn Williams’, according to most of the Rugby World you would be nigh on unbeatable. Where in reality, you’ll get nowhere without a lineout option or a big ball carrier.

I can imagine many people saying that you need this mythical 7 to create turnovers. But it isn’t one player’s sole responsibility to steal opposition ball. This is something the back row should be doing collectively. England and Ireland, the two best teams in the seasons 6 Nations by quite some way apparently don’t operate with a traditional open-side, but the respective back-rows of Wood/Robshaw/Vunipola and O’Mahoney/O’Brien/Heaslip took the ball snaffling responsibilities between them. And the same goes for ball carrying, rucking, lineout jumping, everything. England didn’t just generate turnovers through Robshaw in the 7 shirt this 6 Nations, Tom Wood, Joe Launchbury and good old Dan Cole racked them up.

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Similarly for the centres, I don’t think the number on a players back should determine how they play, or their teams success. Essentially, a good back row player will be good whether he operates at 6, 7 or 8. And I think this applies across numerous positions.  Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself, having slotted in at 12, 13 and 15 at various points this season.

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  1. You can use England and Ireland as examples of teams without a ball winning 7. But the three best teams in the world NZ, AUS and SA start with recognised ball winning 7s in McCaw, Louw and Pocock/Hooper/Gill and historically they and most other great teams have had a class ball winning 7, England 03 era had Back, Munsters dominant Heiny Cup team had Wallace. And a number of successful prem teams do (Sales resurgence on the back of Braid coming in being one example). Its ok to rely on centres and back row as a whole to get turnovers against ordinary/average teams but when you need to beat a quality team with a quality 7 bit part players will find themselves unable to get turnovers against a class 7 and also find it much harder to get turnovers on the back foot. So you can argue that teams can get by without one but to be a great team i think the evidence pretty strongly suggests that you will need one.

    • The rankings dont say so, and my point stands true when you look at how they both usually dont look like the same teams when they play against southern hemisphere teams especially in the southern hempsihre (obviously their is more too that than just the back row composition) .I think you have missed the point of what im saying. Their are more examples if you need them; recent Wales grand slam successes have had either Martin Williams, Warbuton or Tipuric playing as out and out 7s. And on the Irish point if Sean O’Brien was fit he would almost certainly play as he is class and Schmidt rated him and picked him at Leinster, So that only leaves England and with all due respect to Robshaw and his obvious leadership ability and work rate, i dont think that he is a international class back rown player at 6 or 7. He dosnt carry with any dynamism, he isnt a breakdown specialist, he isnt that quick. He does a lot of things well/averagely but lacks any great outstanding qualities, I would go as far to say as he is the weakest link in the england pack. Maybe a Wood,, Croft, Vunipola back row when croft is fit or a Wood, Vunipola at 6 and Morgan backrow. If Kvesic can re discover some form i would pick him as Englands long term 7.

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