The Backrow: All Of The Skill And None Of The Flash?
“Going harassed by Edwards, Slattery’s pick up and he scores!” –
The date; 27th January 1973, Cardiff Arms Park. Twenty-three-year-old Fergus Slattery was in his prime as the Barbarians took on the All Blacks. This, more than any other performance, created a blueprint to which all future Irish backrows were expected to play. Slattery surely must be accredited with starting the long line of backrow pedigree we have had in this country. Slattery redefined the way an openside flanker was expected to play, not just in Ireland. Training with the backs when he could, his combination of excellent handling skills, aggressive rucking, tackling and ability to move for 80 minutes was years ahead of its time.
Slattery was joined in the Irish backrow by the tough Willie Duggan at number 8. John O’Driscoll and Philp Matthews followed in the 80’s. Gordon Hamilton on the turn into the 90’s. Victor Costello, Eric Miller and Anthony Foley in the mid 90’s. Then the turn of the millennium.
Since 2000 there has been an explosion in the number of quality Irish backrow forwards. Easterby, Quinlan, Wallace, Heaslip, Leamy, Ferris, O’Brien; the list goes on. If growing up watching these names play week in, week out for their provinces didn’t make you want to be a backrow; nothing could.
For as long as I can remember; it’s where I wanted to play – the backrow, that is. As a small kid from a GAA background I naturally ended up as a back. First playing in the half-backs, then full-back; before being moved to the midfield as a fifteen-year-old. I know for a fact that this desire wasn’t unique. Everybody I knew growing up who didn’t want to be a half-back or a winger wanted to play in the backrow. Not that we understood the nuances of backrow play, but I think kids liked the idea of being classed as “skilful enough to play in the backs, but tough enough to be a forward”. Mini-rugby saw three, and later five-man scrums. The old hypothesis that people want what it is they can’t have was certainly true in this instance. By the age of 13; when full scrums came around I was bursting for the opportunity to have the number 7 on my back. However, a start to the season at scrum-half, and the emergence of a certain Conor Murray as a dominant starting scrum-half for Ireland caught my attention. I often ask myself if things could have been different if I had opted to play as a back row as a thirteen-year-old, but in hindsight amassing the largest range of skills I could have has stood to me as a backrow.
It is a multi-faceted set of positions. History has shown that the backrow can house players of all shapes and sizes; perfectly exemplified by Serge Betsen and Sebastian Chebal. The checklist of baseline requirements for a backrow is perhaps the smallest of any position on the field; anything beyond this determines how a player will fit into a team. Three players playing incredibly similar positions will often bring a completely different list of abilities to the table, and make up for the other’s shortcomings. Coaches are almost always faced with selection headaches with backrows. At times it can come down to not simply picking the best three players, but picking the right combination to ensure a full armoury on matchday.
In the broadest of terms, backrows can be divided into three different categories, based on their specialities. While successful backrows are expected to be proficient in all of these areas, the majority will have an area of the game they specialise in. The first of these categories is arguably the original role envisaged for an openside flanker; the breakdown specialist. These are some of the most sought-after talents in World Rugby, and while they receive very little praise from the general viewing public a good coach will value a breakdown specialist very highly. They ensure their team has clean, quick ball while going forward, and attempts to create the opposite conditions for the opposition when in defence. Case and point: Richie McCaw, former All Black captain.
Defensive specialists play a huge role in today’s game. This category usually shares its players with the category of breakdown specialist. This category envisages a player who is a master of the “chop tackle”, and can patch any leak in a defence, or indeed deny the opposition the opportunity to cross the gain-line. While there have been some incredible examples of this in the modern era (Thierry Dusatoir cannot go unmentioned), the title surely must go to Dan Lydiate. While he has currently fallen out of favour for selection, at his best he had a mastery of the chop tackle that some of the best players in the world were eager to learn.
Lastly, are the ball carrying specialists; this was traditionally the role envisaged for numbers 6 and 8; although that perception has been shaken up by Sean O’Brien; among others. As defences have become more organised this has become a far more important part of the game. Creating forward momentum for their team is something that both Sean O’Brien, and more recently Hamish Watson, have built their careers on. A dangerous yet brilliant cocktail of power, strength, speed and footwork strike fear into the opposition defence where a ball carrier of the calibre of Watson or O’Brien is involved. These are the players that receive most praise from the general public, but this doesn’t mean they are aren’t receiving this praise from their teammates and coaches alike. In conclusion, they are a vital organ of any successful attacking team.
So why is that so many Irish youngsters want to play in the backrow? Is it because of Fergus Slattery, Anthony Foley, Sean O’Brien? Or, is it because of how the position reflects the values of Irish Rugby and Irish society as a whole; all of the skills without the need to be flashy.
By Matthew Dillon – Sports Co-Editor