How important is a ‘genuine’ open-side?
Much is made these days of the need for a ‘genuine’ no.7, someone in the mould of Australia’s David Pocock or Michael Hooper, whose primary focus is to win turnovers and disrupt opposition ball at the breakdown. We’ve taken a look at some data provided by Accenture to see how the current Northern Hemisphere open-sides are shaping up in the Six Nations.
Looking at Chris Robshaw and Sean O’Brien, in many facets the stats suggest they have been quite similar so far. In the two rounds of the 6 Nations to date, they have made 67 and 59 metres respectively – although the fact that Robshaw has actually made slightly more is surprising. Sean O’Brien is known for his carrying ability, consistently breaking tackles and making more obvious yardage. This stat is a testament, then, to the hard work that Robshaw does in the open spaces and as first receiver, where he often makes ground before passing.
This is backed up by the fairly astonishing statistic that Robshaw has made 17 passes to O’Brien’s three. The use of forwards as link men, and making sure they have the ability to be comfortable with the ball, is a hallmark of Lancaster’s playing style, and something that New Zealand have done consistently well over the years. Interestingly, the open-side with the next highest number of passes is Sam Warburton – in just one game. Make of that what you will.
When it comes to the breakdown, the stats are slightly more sobering. England have won seven turnovers of which Robshaw has won… one. Scotland have won 10 turnovers, with Kelly Brown contributing just two. Wales duo Warburton and Tipuric have won a grand total of zero between them, which is particularly surprising as they are probably the closest thing to a ‘fetcher’ that has has been on offer in the Six Nations.
As the famous saying goes, though, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. The men with 7 on their backs may not have been attributed with making many turnovers themselves, but there is more than one problem with taking that as read. Firstly, just because it didn’t go down as ‘their’ turnover, doesn’t mean they didn’t contribute. And secondly, for most of the players mentioned here their real value lies in other areas of the game. As we’ve already seen, Robshaw’s work-rate to get around the paddock and act as a link-man is invaluable. O’Brien’s barnstorming charges are vital to get Ireland on the front foot. Thierry Dusautoir is a leader of men (who shouldn’t be blamed for his team’s malaises) and gets through more tackles than most in a game. The same can be said of Kelly Brown.
The key word in all this is balance. What appears to be most important these days is having that balance across your back-row, or indeed across your whole team. Chris Robshaw may not have the breakdown abilities of a Pocock or McCaw, but in combination with Tom Wood and Ben Morgan, not to mention Dan Cole and Brad Barritt, England have a host of players capable of competing in the area. Likewise, Ireland’s Sean O’Brien can count on captain Jamie Heaslip and talisman Brian O’Driscoll to help him out.
The Northern Hemisphere’s open-side flankers may not be the best in the world at the breakdown, but they offer so much more than that. So while having a ‘fetcher’ in your team is undoubtedly a bonus, it is far from vital these days. If you want proof you need only look at England’s performance against New Zealand, when a back-row containing no genuine open-side dominated the best in the world in that position.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Accenture is working with the RBS 6 Nations to use technology to make the championship more interactive for fans by providing deeper insight into match data – follow @accenturerugby for all the latest stats and analysis.