north & corbisieroSo the other week after a couple of pints me and a few friends took to debating just what it takes to make a truly successful rugby team. At first there was the usual debate of money vs. commitment, facilities, coaching, etc but when it came down to the actual players we found ourselves pondering an interesting concept.

As you might have guessed from the title of this piece it has something to do with 3 individuals within a team. Our argument went that the signing of 3 key players can be the difference between a team suffering mid-table obscurity or challenging for a place in the play-offs/avoiding a relegation scrap.

The main driver behind our discussion was the form of Northampton Saints so far this season. We pointed to the fact that the signing of 3 world class players in George North, Alex Corbisiero and Kahn Fotauli’i has been instrumental in getting their season off to a flying start.

Now lets face it, Northampton Saints weren’t a bad outfit last season, in fact they were a pretty impressive unit, but they looked beatable. It was only an end-of-season upturn in form that saw them scrape into the play-offs. This season however they are being widely touted as title contenders and with good reason. The signings of North, Corbisiero and Fotauli’i haven’t made them a dramatically better side, what they have done is strengthen areas just enough.

The margins at the highest level are so small in rugby these days that just an extra couple of percent can be enough to see a team come out on top, and that’s exactly what Saints Director of Rugby Jim Mallinder went out and did this summer. He went out and signed players who had that extra little spark, whether it be scrummaging technique, blistering pace or game management.

Now Saints and Tigers have always been close in terms of performance but the game the other weekend at Welford Road was the first time in years were I have felt Saints have looked the more dominant of the two sides consistently throughout 80 minutes. Whilst North was fairly quiet throughout the game and Fotauli’i started on the bench I believe that mentally the team believe in themselves more knowing the quality of players who have been added to the team.

So after a few more pints we really thought we were onto something here, we had a concept, and we had some evidence that we could use to prove the case in point. Now what we needed was to flesh out the concept and define the specifics. This went as such;

We worked out that there are 6/7 pockets within a team (see below), each with their own specific function within a team (the front row, second row, loose forwards, half backs, centres and back three). There was also some debate as to whether the hooker should be considered a separate pocked on their own as there is a lot of reliance on them during the line-out but settled on 6 as a second/back rower can compensate with calls/jumping, etc. All fairly obvious so far…

positionsWe then argued that every team in the Premiership will usually have 2 -3 genuinely top class players in their team, the kind of player any coach would love to have in their team. Now this obviously varies from club to club as teams at the top are likely to be packed with superstars many of whom would walk into any team in the league but we decided to start with a base number of 3.

This then led us to argue about the make-up of a league and how teams are kind of grouped together. We decided that a league can be separated into 3 – 4 separate pockets within the competition structure itself with each pocket consisting of 3 – 4 teams. Below I’ve demonstrated this in a really crappy example of how teams can be split into 4 pockets of 3 as I believe the Premiership panned out last year.

In this case you had three run away sides at the top in Tigers, Sarries and Quins, they were followed by Saints, Gloucester and the Chiefs and so on and so forth. Whilst the margins between each pod are quite small (usually a win or two here or there) the reality is much bigger.

TableThe belief then is that adding three top class players into the side can be enough to see a team rise up one stage of the leagues standings. For example Bath who finished in 7th were six points behind 6th placed Exeter. The difference here was that Exeter won two more games than Bath, but in those two games that Bath lost they picked up a losing bonus point (they had 7 to Exeter’s 5). This means Bath were within 14 points on the field of coming sixth and earning a lucrative Heineken Cup place.

The margins between winning a game or losing by a converted try or less are very minor and made us feel that the addition of three key players to the Bath squad could have been enough to see them topple Exeter and instead be challenging for a top four place. Maybe a prop more adept at the dark arts of scrummaging, or a winger better able to finish could of been the difference between a win or a narrow loss.

So with our concept finally nailed we set about debating who we would look to sign for our respective teams. For me being a Sale fan I first had to identify which areas the current squad is strongest in. For me the three key players in the current squad who on form are irreplaceable are Dan Braid (C) (flanker), Danny Cipriani (Fly-half) and Mark Cueto (Centre/Wing). Looking at these three alongside the likes of Dwayne Peel (Scrum-half), Michael Patterson (Lock) and Sam Tuitupou (Centre) there are a couple of areas that immediately stand out as weaknesses when considering genuinely top class talent.

Firstly on the wing we have some excellent squad players such as Tom Brady and Phil Mackenzie but with Mark Cueto spending more time at centre Sale are possible lacking a real world-class game changer out wide. For me I would either look to a player like Tim Visser (Edinburgh) or Josh Charnley (Wigan Warriors). Visser has already proven to be an unbelievable finisher at the very top level so seems the natural choice. I do however feel that Josh Charnley is one of the brightest young talents in English rugby and would be a great acquisition for the team.

I would then look at the front 3 where there are some exciting prospects such as Henry Thomas, Tommy Taylor and Ross Harrison but no real proven top class scrummager. I would therefore look at a player such as Euan Murray (Worcester Warriors) to come in and help pin the scrum down and give the backs a platform to play off. It also gives the likes of Henry Thomas a proven international to learn his trade off and really develop under.

Based on the theory of three I would therefore be looking at introducing a lock into the squad, whilst a number 8 may seem the more natural choice signing a hardened miserly second rower would free up the likes of Michael Patterson to play at 6 or 8 and add his ball carrying there. I would therefore look at bringing in a player such as Ian Evans who can go about the grunt work in the tight and around the park.

I believe these three players would significantly bolster the current Sale squad and be enough to see them take the next step up to being at least a consistent top 6 side. Murray would help provide a scrummaging platform supported by Evans who would also help add more bulk in the loose. This would then allow the likes of Charnely/Visser to do the damage in the wide channels once the ball has been recycled.

Do you think three players can be enough to make a significant difference to your team? Which three players would you realistically look to sign?