We come to the final position in the pack in our series looking at building the perfect rugby player, with an examination of what goes into making the prototype No8. There is a reasonable amount of crossover with our look at what constitutes the perfect blindside flanker, although the differences between the two are also significant.
With success in rugby so often revolving around how often and how efficiently a team can get over the gainline in attack, the impact of a traditional No8 has never been more keenly felt than it currently is. Below we pick out the five key attributes that go into the position, as well as identifying five current players who best exemplify those qualities.
The primary way No8s help with that battle to win the gainline is through their ball-handling. The position has always been expected to carry the load in this area of the game and that is no different in this current era of rugby. It doesn’t always have to be through brute strength, but they must be adept carriers.
England’s Billy Vunipola arguably leads the way in this area, with his sizeable frame and powerful leg drive helping him win plenty of collisions and break tackles. He is so potent in this area that there were a couple of seasons where you could fairly reliably predict how impressive England would be on the day by whether or not Vunipola was fit and in the starting XV.
In addition to the carrying element, No8s also need to be solid ball-handlers. Whether this is through offloading to keep phases alive, or by being able to accurately pass at speed to find support on a break or shift the point of contact, these loose forwards cannot just be one-dimensional carriers.
There are a few examples who would be suitable here, although perhaps none quite so skilful as Fiji’s Viliame Mata. The long-limbed back rower is capable of lighting up games with his stupendous offloading. Just as we said with Leone Nakarawa in our look at the prototype lock, Mata has repeatedly shown his ability to swing the outcome of games through his ambition and skill execution.
Physicality is another key characteristic of any No8 and links heavily back to their ability to carry the ball, although it also impacts how effective they can be in defence. Denying opposition carriers front-foot ball is another important area of a No8’s game and by hitting as hard in defence as they do in attack, they help make this is a reality.
Few players in the game, let alone at the position, play with the kind of physicality on both sides of the ball that South Africa’s Duane Vermeulen does. Vermeulen is a talismanic figure for the Springboks and is a leader by example on the pitch. If there are any players more consistently physical in world rugby than the South African, it would be news to us.
Not always something that has been associated with No8s, mobility and pace has become a key weapon in their arsenal, as forwards in general have swiftly become more athletic alongside their required size and strength. Having the acceleration and top-end speed to turn a broken tackle into a 20-metre or even 30m break can be key to wearing down and disrupting well-organised defences.
Although he has yet to make his mark in the international arena, England’s Zach Mercer is as good an example as any in this area. The Bath loose forward is almost impossible to corral once he gets into space and he has also shown that same pace and desire when covering in defence, something which is just a further string to his bow.
Finally, we come to the work rate and stamina of a No8. Given the amount of times they are often required to carry the ball per game, in addition to their contributions at the breakdown and in defence, it can be an incredibly physically demanding position to play. In order to keep on top of that workload and still be executing their skills effectively in the latter stages of games, they must boast incredible levels of stamina.
Few can match Ireland’s CJ Stander in this area, with the Munster back row frequently topping the carries, tackles and rucks hit statistics at the end of a game. It’s not just the numbers he puts up, either, with many of his carries and tackles proving to be dominant ones, and that simply wouldn’t be the case if he weren’t conditioned to a level where he could repeatedly pull that off.
Ball-carrying – Billy Vunipola
Ball-handling – Viliame Mata
Physicality – Duane Vermeulen
Mobility – Zach Mercer
Workrate and stamina – CJ Stander
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