Fresh from looking over the wing position and what makes for the prototype player, our series attempting to build the perfect rugby player wraps up with an examination of the full-back position.
There are a number of crossovers with the wing position and that shows up with how interchangeable the two positions have become for the more adept players in international rugby. That said, there are also a number of unique attributes, with certain things demanded of full-backs that are only seen as desirable in wings.
We have picked out the five most important skills below and attempted to identify a player currently playing who best exemplifies those qualities.
Given the prevalence of the tactical kicking game in rugby now, whether that’s for territory or to contest and win back ball, a full-back needs to be adept in the air. They have to be consistent dealing with those deep kicks, as well as brave and technically proficient enough to own the space and time their jumps in order to give themselves the best chance of success with contested catches.
The skills of Wales’ Liam Williams are considerable and wide-ranging, and he is one of the best players in the air in rugby, regardless of position. He is explosive enough to meet the ball at his highest point, a point usually above his rivals, and brave enough to take the hard landings that frequently come with it. In defence and attack, his ability to win contested catches is excellent.
Once those catches have been won, there is often an opportunity for a full-back to launch a counter-attack. This can be through a swerving solo break or it can be by moving the ball swiftly to an area of the pitch where the chasing team are not ready or equipped to stop the break. This awareness of space on the pitch is vital in all but the most one-dimensional of defensive and territorial full-backs.
In this area, no one has yet surpassed New Zealand’s Damian McKenzie. The former fly-half is electric with the ball in his hand and his ability to pass and offload accurately at pace makes the players around him every bit as offensively potent as he himself is. If the chase has dog legs or lacks cohesion, McKenzie will undoubtedly punish the opposing team.
In order to make the most of that counter-attacking ability, a full-back will need to have plenty of pace. If they can make an initial chaser miss, they could have space to exploit and they will need to do so quickly. In addition to offensive impact, the speed of a full-back in defence is also vital, as they tend to be the last line of defence and may need to cover other players’ errors.
For speed, not many can match Ireland’s Jordan Larmour, with both he and McKenzie largely interchangeable in the pace and counter-attacking categories. Larmour has added scintillating speed to the Irish back three and though there are other areas of his game that he needs to round out, he is rapidly making himself invaluable to Andy Farrell moving forward.
It can’t all be about mazy counter-attacks and open rugby, though, and tactical kicking forms an important part of any full-back’s game. The ability to relieve as much pressure as possible in challenging situations is key, as well as the ability to switch pressure onto the opposing side with a kick that eats up as much territory as possible. With the potential adoption of the 50:22 kicking law, this will be a skill that will only grow in importance at the position.
A relatively new name on the scene, France’s Anthony Bouthier showed during the Guinness Six Nations that he might have the best boot in the business at the position. His spiral kicks were a work of art during the tournament and his kicking game has been a big part of his rise from the lower leagues of French rugby to a starring role with Top 14 powerhouse Montpellier.
Finally, we come to perhaps the least glamorous skill in a full-back’s repertoire, their ability to make one-on-one tackles. As mentioned before, full-backs are often the last line of defence, so when an attacking player makes a break, they are regularly on their own in the battle to stop them before the try line. This requires proficient reading of the game in defence, the savvy to take the right angle to the carrier, and then the power and technique to actually make the tackle.
He fell out of favour just prior to the recent Rugby World Cup, but England’s Mike Brown is still one of the very best in the game at getting to and bringing down an attacking player. Brown was so good in this area, as well as with his ability in the air, that he held off the challenges of arguably more potent attacking full-backs for a number of years and was one of the most consistent 15s in international rugby.
Aerial contest – Liam Williams
Counter-attacking – Damian McKenzie
Speed – Jordan Larmour
Kicking – Anthony Bouthier
Tackling – Mike Brown
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