Flankers at scrum-half and wings on the openside: is positional flexibility the next league-inspired innovation in rugby union?
Eddie Jones is a boon for sports media and he seems to enjoy it. His bait provides helpful headlines to journalists everywhere but, as much as his comments seemed designed to provoke outrage, perhaps they should more often provoke thought.
But Jack Nowell is not an openside flanker, I hear you say. Nor is Ben Earl a winger or Ben Curry a scrum-half. Professor Tony Collins, Emeritus Professor of History at De Montfort University, follows the history and present of both codes in detail and he thinks there is far more merit to Jones’ suggestions than we are giving him credit for, as well as a whole lot more to explore in this area.
First, however, let’s take a step back. As much as a fierce rivalry remains between the two codes, rugby union has taken plenty of inspiration from its league counterpart in recent times. Defence coaching and changes to the laws are the most obvious areas but, 25 years on from the introduction of professionalism in union, there are still many things being learned from the sport that got there almost a century earlier.
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League defence coaches have been the rage for a while now in union, with Andy Farrell and Shaun Edwards being the most high-profile examples of league legends bringing their expertise to union. But the stifling line speed and generally suffocating defences that have emerged as a consequence of coaches like them have created a need for further cross-pollination between the codes.
Saracens and England (among others) have been using league-style screen passes for some time now, the quick inside ball to take advantage of a weak shoulder offered by defence is becoming standard in attack, while cross-kicking to get over defences has also become common around the world.
Proposed changes to the laws, such as the 50-22 rule currently being trialled, will only encourage savvier coaches to look to league for tactical ideas. Collins believes that it is inevitable for union to look to league to evolve tactics, arguing, “union has always been travelling in the same direction as league but in a different vehicle, if you want to extend the metaphor. The offside rule means there are limited ways to respond to the tactical challenges of professional rugby union and that is to look towards league because it has already faced these issues”.
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Essentially, he says, “in both union and league, you can go through the defence, round it, or over it. Rugby league’s techniques for doing that are often better because they were developed earlier and are therefore more advanced.”
The set-piece and the breakdown are the two key areas where league seems to differ significantly from union. Tinkering at the scrum and lineout in union is anathema to many, which Collins notes, although it’s worth pointing out that there are now sometimes more scrums in league than union matches, something unthinkable even ten years ago. Moreover, as Collins also points out, the number where possession is won against the head or throw is also diminishing.
Without legislating to remove the scrum or the lineout, they are areas that allow for innovation and, indeed, it’s become common to see variations at the lineout. Ireland have often taken advantage of Conor Murray’s size to use him there and Scotland memorably once used three backs — Alex Dunbar, Greig Laidlaw, and Tommy Seymour — in a lineout to score. More recently, Wales have removed Justin Tipuric, one of their go-to jumpers, from the line to take advantage of his distribution skills at first receiver instead.
That brings us back to Jones, one of rugby union’s current most forward-thinking coaches. In the past, he has tinkered with backs in the scrum, giving him a more powerful carrier to take the ball and attack the opposition defence. Collins believes positional interchangeability is, “definitely an area where more could be done to take advantage of an opposition expecting a more traditional play.
“Exchanging a back for a forward in a set-piece sacrifices some size in the scrum or lineout to gain size in the first phase of attack from that set-piece. That’s definitely something league has grappled with, which accounts for the greater interchangeability between league positions.”
For instance, he suggests, “flankers often have better hands than centres in the tackle. Asking them to take the ball in the first phase after a scrum might increase your chance of breaking through.
“In general, skill sets of rugby union players are different than their league counterparts and they haven’t always kept up with the speed at which the game has changed. That’s partly why the All Blacks have been so good for most of the past 10-15 years: their traditional skill set has perfectly matched the modern game and given them an advantage over teams that don’t have that skill set (e.g. forwards who can handle and distribute well). That may change, considering the way South Africa won the Rugby World Cup, of course.”
So what about Nowell in the seven jersey, Earl on the wing, and Curry as a scrum-half? Asking a flanker to take on some of the responsibilities on a scrum-half is not as silly as it sounds. The greater generalisation of skill sets in rugby league is not only helpful in terms of selection but, says Collins, “it allows players to play what’s in front of them on the pitch — you don’t need to wait for a half back because the hooker, or dummy half, can pass onto the first receiver. Indeed, the halfbacks are no longer necessarily the fulcrum of the attack. In fact, they often stand as a sort of left and right first receiver.”
Think about it this way and you see Jones’ point — having a flanker who is comfortable passing the ball reduces your reliance on a scrum-half so you can always get the ball away from the breakdown more quickly.
The unfortunate appearance of Mauro Bergamasco provides a punchline to those looking for a joke but, in both codes, speed at the breakdown is absolutely crucial.
“Gaining an advantage there in union could be about far more than selecting two opensides in tandem”, Collins suggests. “Asking a second (or third) player to take on the passing responsibilities of a scrum-half could gain you an extra second to make up for the half-second you might have lost as the opposition spoiled your ball. That can be extremely significant.”
Asking a wing to jackal more (which is what Jones actually meant about Nowell) and a flanker to pass from the base of the ruck or cover the wing gives you extra options in attack and defence, as well as more freedom to go for a 6/2 bench split — something Jones seems increasingly keen on.
Of course, we do see some positional flexibility in union already, although it mostly involves players with a background in sevens or league, both of which demand wider skill sets. Tipuric’s sevens’ background frequently sees him put forward as a solution to Wales’ seemingly constant centre crisis, for instance.
In a recent interview, Jones cited Lepani Botia, who plays at inside centre for Fiji but as a flanker for La Rochelle, bringing the qualities of both to whichever role he plays. For Scotland, both Fraser Brown and Stuart McInally, hookers converted from flankers, bring their mobility and breakdown expertise to the front row and give the side more versatility in the squad.
So, backs in the set-piece and breakdown, forwards distributing on the first phase, scrum-half creativity, and the diminished importance of the set-piece — is that the future of rugby union?
Collins cautions that coaches may be very unwilling to embrace that, observing that, “the importance of culture and tradition in determining the direction of all these things cannot be understated. Sport is about identity and that will always prevent rugby union from becoming consciously too similar to rugby league. It will also likely make it difficult for coaches to innovate too much at once.”
If there’s a current international coach who might be willing to try it, however, it’s probably Jones.
Watch: All Blacks star Ardie Savea reveals shock rugby league ambitions.