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The death of the blindside

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The strange death of the blindside flanker

The blindside flanker might be the least glamorous position in modern rugby.

That honour used to be the preserve of the front row but we have seen so many all-singing, all-dancing front rows in the last few years that jokes about revoking “the front row union card” are starting to wear a little thin. Meanwhile, second rows such as Maro Itoje and Brodie Retallick dummy and stride their way towards the try-line like centres. Blindsides are left doing the “unseen work” rather than going viral.

Increasingly, blindsides aren’t even on the field. Some of the best teams in the business are employing the twin openside model that Australia and Wales have toyed with since before the 2015 Rugby World Cup. When you have two players of the calibre of Michael Hooper and David Pocock, or Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton (then; Josh Navidi now), that is entirely understandable.

England and New Zealand have recently adopted this approach for similar reasons: it gets your best players on the field. Tom Curry, Sam Underhill, Sam Cane and Ardie Savea are fantastic players who can change a game. Moreover, the importance of turnover ball, both in slowing down opposition attacks and generating counter-attacks, is so important now that having two jackals on the pitch makes perfect sense.

But are teams missing a crucial piece of the puzzle?

Is sacrificing a blindside flanker the best way to win?

Let’s look at it another way. Would this Australian team be better with a Scott Fardy-style player in the back-row? Would New Zealand have a little more cohesion if Jerome Kaino were still pulling on the No 6 jersey?

Fardy, of course, is 35 years old and Kaino is 36. It might be that they can no longer perform at this level. That said, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Schalk Brits have suggested in this tournament that age is no barrier and both blindside flankers are still putting in impressive performances week in, week out for their clubs. Players, coaches, and fans at Leinster and Toulouse, respectively, can’t sing their praises highly enough.

In 2015, Pocock topped the tournament stats for turnovers with an astonishing 17 successful efforts. He also slowed down opposition ball at the ruck constantly. Even in the final, where New Zealand successfully stopped him from winning the ball with their own breakdown specialists, they couldn’t stop him from having an impact.

Here, you can see Fardy make the initial tackle and maintain his position to allow Pocock to slow down the ball. Australia don’t actually win the ball but those seconds are crucial to allow the defence to reset..

In contrast, during the 2019 tournament, Pocock hasn’t got a single turnover while playing on the blindside, despite featuring in Australia’s opening three matches in that position. He has again been teamed up with his old pal and fellow openside Michael Hooper but now Australia have prioritised a ball carrier in the back row, in the form of Isa Naisarani. That has moved Pocock to the blindside flank, where he has to do a lot of the work that Fardy used to do for him. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this limits Australia’s turnover ability because now they only have one jackal waiting to pounce while the other is doing what Fardy used to do for them.

You can see this here against Wales. Pocock makes the tackle but he’s now out of the equation, leaving Hooper to try and fail to make the turnover. Time and again during this match, Pocock and Hooper struggled to make any headway at the breakdown. In fact, they conceded 17 turnovers to Wales’ nine.

In part, this was because of how Wales’ approached their back-row selection (more on this later) but it’s also because Australia’s need for a ball-carrying back rower has left Pocock making the tackles he used to take advantage of and Hooper trying to jackal instead of playing in the wide channels where he can affect the attack.

Meanwhile, at Leinster, Fardy has been putting in game-high tackle and carrying counts for two seasons now. So important is he to the Pro14 double champions that he is always one of their two overseas squad selections in the Heineken Cup. They frequently take their chances without James Lowe at the back to ensure Fardy can play up front. Fardy has more than repaid the risk – helping deliver the trophy in 2018 and pushing Saracens all the way in the 2019 final.

It’s hard not to feel that Australia might be a little better with him in the side.

The enforcer role

Kaino’s absence is noticeable in other ways and is to be expected: after all, he was arguably one of the great modern blindsides. But it is the way in which Kaino was great that matters here. When New Zealand shocked the Lions with their physicality in the first test, Kaino was right there in the thick of it despite having just returned from an absence. He was only on the pitch for 47 minutes but he made a lasting impression.

That was the kind of game Kaino was made for. Despite being comfortable with ball in hand, his aggression in defence makes it tough for anyone, however big, to get down his channel and his carrying gave New Zealand a useful option when they needed to get back to the basics. More than anything, his experience and level-head are invaluable to a team playing a high-intensity, attack-focused game. Just ask Toulouse.

In the Heineken Cup quarter-final, away from home and with their fly-half sent off after 22 minutes, Kaino helped Toulouse overcome Racing 92 to make the semi-final, making 18 tackles without missing a single one or conceding a penalty. In the Top 14 final, with their usual captain injured, Kaino led a team low on experience and high on flair to their first title in seven years. He even stepped in at first-receiver to set up a try.

Ugo Mola, Toulouse’s head coach, said Kaino has been “everything we hoped for when we were looking for him”.

You can win things with kids if you have a grizzled pro to take charge. You can win with a high-risk, offload-heavy game-plan if you have one of the best enforcers in the world to do the dirty work.

Which brings us to New Zealand. In the past few years, they have taken their attacking approach to a whole new level. The speed at which they attack, from anywhere on the field is frequently – even by New Zealand’s standards – frightening.

But, as Toulouse have demonstrated, that kind of attack works best with someone like Kaino to pick up the pieces when it doesn’t quite come off, to frighten the counter-attacker into a split second pause, to make a tackle that shifts the whole momentum of the game, and to do the unseen work. All of which is, of course, the job of a blindside flanker.

Wales see the light?

Interestingly, Wales seem to have shifted their approach, despite being an early adopter of the twin-openside policy.

For a long time, their back row policy was based on balance: the tackling and physicality of Dan Lydiate on the blindside, the jackaling of Warburton on the openside, and the power and skills or Taulupe Faletau at the base. When they did play two opensides, with Warburton at No 6, he played like a blindside, bringing all his physicality to the position and allowing Tipuric to shine.

When Warburton retired, Josh Navidi took on this role. Navidi is comfortable across the back row and, although he is most often seen as an openside, he is perhaps best in the No 6 jersey. He is a player ideally suited to the dirty work of a blindside, tackling with gusto and allowing the players around him to get on with their jobs. His appetite for work was a crucial part of Wales’ Grand Slam success.

In the game against England, he made more tackles than anyone for Wales except the exceptional Alun-Wyn Jones, including a crucial tackle here to prevent Billy Vunipola making metres as England sought to extend their lead.

However, it was during Wales’ phase attack that he made a real impact. Time and again, as a Welsh player sought contact, Navidi was right behind them to defend against a counter-ruck, allowing them to secure possession safely.

Here, he goes one step further. Wales have just taken the lead for the first time in the game and momentum is swinging their way. As North takes the ball and starts to go to ground, Navidi waits beside him in support and identifies Curry as the English danger man, wrestling him out of the ruck to prevent him from making a crucial steal.

These are just two examples of the work a blindside flanker gets through. It’s not flashy but it’s the type of thing that can swing a game your way, frustrating your opponent and smoothing the way for your side.

Wales have taken this approach even further in the RWC, capitalising on the emergence of young tyro Aaron Wainwright. Instead of prioritising the carrying ability of Ross Moriarty, they have gone twice with an all-flanker back row, emphasising the importance of the nitty gritty and asking others, such as loosehead props Wyn Jones and Nicky Smith, to pick up the jackaling duties.

From the very start, Wales used Wainwright’s counter-rucking abilities to pressurise Hooper’s take of the kick-off and then steal the ball, a move which led to Dan Biggar’s drop goal on 36 seconds.

Wainwright was substituted after only 49 minutes, with the Australian fightback in its infancy and Wales eleven points to the good. He’d already made ten tackles, eight carries, and beaten two defenders.

Is this a trend?

Of course, a major factor in all of these decisions is personnel. For New Zealand, Liam Squire’s unavailability makes Savea a more attractive prospect on the blindside than as a super-sub. For Australia, it’s hard to imagine them entering a game without their two best players.

For England, however, their most difficult period under Eddie Jones saw them struggle at the breakdown and, for most of their resurgence, they used Mark Wilson to great effect in the No 6 jersey. Selecting two opensides is clearly a tactical decision for them, not an issue of personnel.

For Wales, Wainwright’s form makes it hard to leave him out. But Warren Gatland could have chosen to use him in combination with Moriarty. Instead, he has clearly embraced the virtues of the blindside, asking both Navidi and Wainwright to play that way. This approach has freed up Tipuric, always noticeable in his turquoise scrum-cap, to roam free, involving himself all over the park for Wales.

It is a different tactic and one in keeping with Wales’ current approach to games: work harder than anyone, play as a collective, and do whatever is necessary to secure the win. Wales are championing the blindside mentality – will other teams follow suit? Or will the twin openside approach win out?

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The strange death of the blindside flanker