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Building the perfect rugby player: Blindside flanker

By Alex Shaw
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We now move to the blindside flankers in our series looking at what goes into making the perfect rugby player at each position, having profiled the prototype lock earlier this week.

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The composition of back rows is by no means rigidly defined, with many teams opting to double up on similar players across the loose forward trio, although the traditional stereotype of a blindside flanker still exists and is still highly valued by most teams.

Even when a team does opt for two more traditional opensides on the flanks, or even moves a second row to the blindside, those players still have to deliver in areas that have long become associated with the six jersey. We pick out those five key attributes below and highlight the best examples of them in world rugby.

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First and foremost, a blindside flanker is required to exert their physicality on the game, often most notably in the tackle. They are regularly among the biggest hitting players in any team and they are frequently tasked with bringing down the opposition’s power carriers in solo tackles on or before the gain-line.

Few players do that as well as Argentina’s Marcos Kremer, with the former age-grade second row having transitioned excellently to a role on the blindside as a senior international. His ability to stay low in the tackle and drive up and through ball-carriers, denying them any momentum, is something which sets him apart, whilst he’s also not afraid to go higher and attempt to deny the carrier any offloading opportunities.

One word that has always been associated with blindsides is ‘workhorse’ and relates to the demand that they be one of, if not the busiest player on the team in defence. They are regularly asked to make multiple tackles in a small number of phases and that can be physically and mentally draining, and it takes special players to fight through that and keep performing.

As far as the current crop of blindside flankers go, no one surpasses South Africa’s Pieter-Steph du Toit in this area. The reigning World Rugby Player of the Year could be mentioned in any of these five categories, such is his incredible ability on the pitch, though it’s that stamina and work rate he has that allows and pushes him to keep positively impacting all facets of the game at club and international levels.

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Although normally considered more of an openside flanker trait, the ability to influence the battle at the breakdown has become an important part of any blindside’s repertoire. The accuracy and efficiency of a blindside on the clear-out has always been required, though with transition rugby being such a pivotal part of the game, proficiency stealing ball at defensive breakdowns has also become key.

Part of England’s ‘Kamikaze Twins’ pairing at the Rugby World Cup, Tom Curry excelled in a role on the blindside in England’s mobile and dynamic pack. He brought physicality and other more blindside-specific skills to the position, but his work as a brutally efficient operator on either side of the ball at the contact area dovetailed well with the similarly effective Sam Underhill.

Providing a third option at the lineout, in addition to the two second rows, is another area of the game where a blindside flanker can set themselves apart. There are exceptions, of course, but No 8s and openside flankers don’t always tend to be the most adept jumpers, so a tall blindside with plenty of vertical explosion can make themselves integral to any back row unit.

There really is no one more adept at this in the modern game than Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony, who has regularly wrecked opposition game plans with his ability to disrupt at the lineout. His tendency to read an opposition throw and get up and in front of his rival jumper is remarkable and any team lining up against Munster or Ireland has to have a contingency plan for him. Throw into the mix the fact he is a reliable option on attacking throws, too, and you have quite the player.

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Last but not least, we come to mobility and athletic ability. As with the locks, this has not always been a major requirement of the position, but as the game has become faster and forwards in general have turned into a rare breed of physical freak, the same is expected of blindsides.

For New Zealand, Shannon Frizell has encapsulated this brilliantly. He provides all the physical muscle close to the ruck and in the tight that he is needed to, but he also shines when the game breaks up or becomes looser, as he has the pace to live with it. Whether making important breaks as a ball-carrier, supporting others’ breaks or covering across the pitch in defence, Frizell’s proficiency at moving through the gears is impressive.

Physicality in the tackle – Marcos Kremer

Stamina and work rate – Pieter-Steph du Toit

Breakdown contribution – Tom Curry

Lineout option – Peter O’Mahony

Mobility – Shannon Frizell

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Shaylen 4 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

These guys will be utility players Nick it cannot be helped because coaches cannot help themselves. Rassie looks at players like these and sees the ability to cover multiple positions without losing much. It allows the 6-2 or 7-1. He wont change his coaching style or strategy for one player. At provincial level players like these are indispensable. If there is an injury to your starting 12 but your back up 12 is a bit iffy then a coach is going to go with the back up 10 who is gold and who can play a good 12. Damian Willemse for the Springboks is an obvious case, for the Stormers its the same. Dobson plays him at 12 or 15, with Gelant in the team he plays 12 but if Gelant goes down he doesnt go for his back up 15, he just puts Willemse there. With Frawley its the same at international and provincial level. He just slots in wherever. Frans Steyn made a career out of it. He was much maligned though as a youngster as he never fully developed into any role. He then went to Japan and France to decide for himself what kind of player he was, put on muscle and retained his big boot, ran over players and booted the ball long and came back into the Springboks after about 3 years away and was then certain about how he wanted to play the game no matter what position. Coaches cannot help themselves because they only want what is best for their teams and that means putting your most talented players on even if it means you cause them some discomfort. Sometimes players need to decide how they want to play the game and then adapt that to every position and let the coach decide how they want to use them.

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Jon 10 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

I think the main problem here is the structure of both countries make up. They are going to have very similar.. obstacles(not problems). It will just be part of the evolution of their rugby and they’ll need to find a way to make this versatility more advantageous than specialization. I think South Africa are well on the way to that end already, but Ireland are more likely to have a hierarchical approach and move players around the provinces. Ioane is going to be more than good enough to lock up one of those available positions for more than a few years I believe though. Morgan would definitely be a more long term outlook. Sacha to me has the natural footwork of a second five. Not everything is about winning, if a team has 3 players that want to play 10s just give them all a good go even if its to the detriment of everyone, this is also about dreams of the players, not just the fans. This is exactly how it would be in an amateur club setting. Ultimately some players just aren’t suited to any one position. The example was of a guy that had size and speed, enough pace to burn, power to drive, and speed to kick and pass long, but just not much else when it came to actual rugby (that matched it). New Zealand has it’s own example with Jordie Barrett and probably shows what Reece Hodge could have been if the game in Australia had any administration. Despite the bigger abundance of talent in NZ, Jordie was provided with consistent time as a fullback, before being ushered in as a second five. Possibly this was due to his blood, and another might not have been as fortunate, but it is what it was, a complete contrast to how Hodge was used in Australia, were he could have had any position he wanted. When it comes down to it though, much like these young fellas, it will be about what they want, and I think you’ll find they’ll be like Hodge and just want to be as valuable to the team as they can and play wherever. It’s not like 63 International Cap is a hard thing to live with as a result of that decision!

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