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’.
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.
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.
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.