Last week, England back row star Richard Hill gave us the overview of the flanker’s role in the modern era. This week, Richard looks at how you can improve your game and the various qualities needed to be successful in the back row.
Playing in the back row is all about work rate and winning the ball. As I mentioned last week, few other positions have the ability to positively effect a game, purely as you should be always where the ball is, giving you a chance to compete, challenge or carry.
I believe there are 5 key qualities required:
- High work rate- you should be one of the fittest players on the pitch
- Effective- be disruptive and destructive, creative and dynamic
- Intelligence- give options, run lines
- Support play- be available
- Team work- organise and secure.
Let‚s look at some simple game scenarios:
The attacking scrum:
Listen and be acutely aware where you could be required immediately to support/secure/recycle possession or your role in 2nd phase.
However, your primary role here is to ensure that you scrummage, otherwise your ear will forever be chewed off by props telling you of your responsibility to winning the ball! Commit to your role of pushing your prop in the required direction by driving him and ultimately scrum forward. As a flanker, you may need to channel the ball back to the eight and need to maintain your balance to do so. If your prop is in difficulty, you will have to remain down until the ball is out. Be aware of what‚s happening and adapt. When the ball comes out into the first phase play, you now move to where the breakdown is likely to be or react to the situation as it plays out in front of you, and as a team mate recognises an attacking opportunity or, as will happen at times, a mistake.
At that first phase move, your role is simple- get to the ball. That might be a breakdown, it might be kick chasing, but essentially you are there to be available‚. If you’re the first there, make sure the ball is secured in ruck or maul; if you‚re the second or third to arrive at the ruck, decide what is more use to your team- if the ball’s secured, work around the fringes to become a carrier or distributor.
As the phase play continues, again, decide if you need to win, support, or carry. Whatever you do, be there to offer an option and make a difference.
The defensive left hand scrum:
This relies a lot upon communication. My personal preference is the following procedure. Basically as a blindside, you need to be the guardian of that narrow channel. Nothing must get past you. You should be the first tackler off, using the 16th man to defend (the touchline) and allowing the 8 to pick up anything coming inside. If your prop is in difficulty or the loose head prop goes forward, then this may vary as you’re forced to stay and scrummage- this then needs communication with your 8 for him to step out slightly wider and cover the narrow, with you covering the inside hole. If you’re open, then you are now working closely with the 9 dependent on whether he stays tight or wide to the scrum. You must then adopt the opposite decision, either filling inside shoulder or 9, or work hard to fill the inside hole of 10. Then everything you need to do is about pressuring that 9/10/12 channel, and forcing them to do what you want to do- if you pressure on the 10/12 side, then the 8 should again pick up anything switching back in. If you want to get the opposition to drift across, then you’ll run a tighter, straighter 9/10 channel to pressure. It all depends on how you want to defend and what options you want the attacking side to take.
In both attack and defence, it’s also common place for one of the back row to cover a kick to touch. For example- you know your 9 has called the box kick off first phase- one of the back row needs to drop back to cover the return kick. Equally, in defence, if the open flanker is getting up hard in the face of the 10/12‚s, then a relief kick is on the cards- be aware and make sure one of the back row is covering that kick to touch.
The key here is to have a clear understanding of the team strategy. As noted before, in first phase, know the game plan and know where that breakdown is going to occur. Understand the phase calls and be there to support. There’s a degree of trust required here as you’ll need to be pre-emptive in terms of attacking lines if and when you get the ball, execute well- you should be able to beat a man one on one, or to ensure continuity. Whatever happens when you get the ball, understand there‚s no such thing as bad ball until you make it that- it’s all about your decision making.
Physical fitness in every respect is the key to becoming the tackling machine your side wants from you!
I had a simple mantra when tackling- “Perform the very best technical tackle you are able to” The definition of the best technical tackle differs according to the game conditions- let’s examine a few of the options:
- low tackles- to me the most important tackle to master and the one that will be most used in your rugby career. Perfect this and then move on to other techniques. Executed with good technique, powerful leg drive with support from team mates you will be able to dominate the gainline. Back up on feet to recycle self back in to play
- the big hit- generally higher up on the body, with the intent of driving the man back. You‚ll be looking for the second man in to take the ball as you make the hit. Power, leg drive and timing are keys here.
- wrap tackle- a tackle designed to take both man and ball to ground. Be careful under the new laws as this is rendered less effective now as you‚ll need to roll away the moment you hit the ground. Again, the second man in is key here and needs to drive over the tackled player to secure.
- tap tackle- the last resort- but sometimes necessary!
Be aware of the need to maintain a defensive line- most attacking breaks happening when the defence dog-leg their own defensive line (i.e. step out of the line and create a hole behind). As a flanker, you‚ll become a defensive leader and you will also look to direct the front five forwards to make close quarter tackles inside you, allowing you to work across and maintain a defensive presence in the open channels.
Second man in- this is a key part of the flanker‚s role- in every situation you’ll be looking to win the ball and be as disruptive as possible. Getting a low centre of gravity and driving low to high is important. Hit the ruck at pace but with control too. Look for the ball. Look to win it, dislodge it with foot or, at worst, prevent others from winning it (slowing it down).
I hope the above gives you a little insight into the back rower’s functions and duties. It is literally impossible to cover everything as, as I have said before, the flanker is the consummate rugby all-rounder and needs al the skills.
The Good the Bad and the Ugly:
In closing, I’m often asked who were the best I played against and there’s 3 or 4 that always spring to mind:
George Smith- brilliant at ruck time, and so powerful over the ball and difficult to shift. He had a very low centre of gravity – in the Lions series 2001, there was a conscious team decision to remove him before he was able to influence the ball or player. Fortunately it worked, but it does underline what I said about using intelligence to win as well as power.
Andre Ventre- powerful and very hard. I always knew I‚d been in a game when I played against this huge Springbok.
Marty Holah- often forgotten as McCaw‚s back up, but a fierce competitor and another that created me a lot of issues. Very physical and powerful in the breakdown.
Richie McCaw- really one of the modern masters of back row play and a player who plays just on the line of the law. His absolute skill is ‘being effective’. He won’t waste an ounce of energy doing anything that does not have a direct influence on play.
Well, that’s it from me. I‚d like to thank all at Ruckingball for having me and I wish you, the young or emerging player, the very best of luck. Rugby has been a huge part of my life and I would not have changed a moment of it. I hope it gives you as much pleasure as it has me and I trust you’ll glean a little from my words above
Richard Hill won 71 caps for England and 5 for the British Lions. With Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio he formed one of the most feared back rows in modern international rugby. In 2004, a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament put a premature end to Hill’s England career, although he won one more test cap for the Lions in NZ in 2005, and went on to appear for Saracens until his retirement in 2008, with a total of 275 first team appearances. He now works at Saracens mentoring the next generation of young talent, combining this with his role on the RFU Council. He has recently launched the RFU’s Wine Club, taking a self-confessed and blogged journey from wine novice to sommelier! Visit http://www.rfuwineclub.com/wine/richard_hill.html for more details or follow Richard’s views on twitter @rhillrugby