Europe’s top three leagues – the Top 14, Guinness Pro14 and the Gallagher Premiership – all have different reputations and styles of play, which means different players are suited to different positions.
While some positions will not get many variations from player to player in different teams, there are certain shirts that can be worn by players of all sizes. Openside flanker is one role where the requirements of height and weight are variable, and while there may be a concept of an ideal seven being the smallest player in the pack, that is by no means a necessity.
So when comparing the starting openside flankers in every game across the three leagues in the most recent weekend of domestic action (the last weekend of November), it offered some surprising and some expected results.
While it should be taken into consideration that this weekend of fixtures was between two blocks of European matches and also in the wake of the World Cup, meaning first-choice players may have been rested, that does not really affect anything because there is nothing to suggest that a better player should be any different in size to anyone else.
What must also be noted is that France operates with left and right flankers, rather than openside and blindside. While that muddies the waters somewhat, it still does not mean that they may no longer seek to fulfil the role of a traditional seven – they must just have a different number on their back.
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However, both sides of the scrum have been accounted for when looking at the French league. The first noticeable thing is that the Top 14 sevens and sixes were a fair bit taller than their PRO14 and Gallagher Premiership counterparts. In France, the average height was 192.14cms (6ft 4ins) for those wearing seven on their back and 191.64cms (6ft 3ins) for those wearing six.
In a league that is dominated by the set-piece and attritional battles upfront, it may not be surprising that the average height of a flanker is only just short of a lock.
This may suggest a move away from the role of ‘fetcher’ flankers that have dominated the game in recent years such as Riche McCaw, David Pocock or Michael Hooper. Of those three, McCaw was the tallest at 187cms (6ft 1in), which means of the 28 flankers that started in the Top 14 at the end of November, only three – or eleven per cent – were smaller than the feted Kiwi (Lyon’s Liam Gill, Brive’s Said Hireche and Bayonne’s Jean Monribot).
Conversely, the sevens in both the PRO14 and the Premiership were quite similar to one another and smaller than those in France. The average height in the PRO14 was 187.57cms (6ft 2ins) and 187.17cms (6ft 2ins) in England, which is virtually identical.
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Using the comparison to McCaw again, six of the 14 opensides in the PRO14 were smaller as were six of the twelve in the Premiership.
While this may be a fairly basic comparison, it does highlight a contrast in philosophies between France, who may focus on aerial supremacy at the lineout, and the teams in England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, where there may be a greater emphasis on the breakdown where smaller flankers with a lower centre of gravity profit.
There is not much difference in weight between the three leagues, with flankers in the PRO14 and Premiership being almost identical at 104.23kgs (16st 5lbs) and 104.87kgs (16st 7lbs), respectively. Meanwhile, sixes weighed 104.6kgs and sevens weighed 107.3kgs, suggesting France still favour heavier flankers.
However, the average weight of the lightest flanker on either side of the scrum in France, and perhaps most suited to being a stereotypical seven, was 102.5kgs, which is just under the average of the other leagues.
This can be misleading though, as the likes of Northampton Saints’ Lewis Ludlam and the Scarlets’ Josh Macleod are two examples of players that were heavier than their blindside team-mate during this round of fixtures.
The Top 14’s proclivity to opt for slightly heavier and taller flankers, be it at six or seven, is symptomatic of the differences between the styles in the PRO14/Premiership and France where more mobile loose forwards are adopted to facilitate a quicker brand of rugby.
During the round in focus, Glasgow Warriors’ Chris Fusaro was the smallest (180cms/ 5ft 11ins) and second-lightest (94kgs/14st 11lbs) flanker in Europe and he succinctly mirrors and suits the high-tempo style of rugby that Dave Rennie seeks to play at Scotstoun.
However, the stats from the PRO14 are a slight red herring, as they were skewed by the Italian and South African sides. Of the 14 opensides that started that particular weekend, all four from Italy or South Africa weighed over 105kgs (16st 6lbs), with the Southern Kings’ Thembelani Bholi and Benetton’s Braam Steyn weighing the heaviest.
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This is perhaps indicative of the style of rugby played by both nations, especially South Africa, who traditionally favour heavier and more powerful packs. When only looking at the sevens from Wales, Ireland and Scotland, the average height was 186.3cms (6ft 1in) and average weight is 102.2kgs (16st 1lb), which does show a perceptible difference compared to England, let alone France.
In that case, the Premiership sits between the two leagues, which is unsurprising due to the variety of approaches by each team. For example, Exeter Chiefs fielded Don Armand in the seven shirt, who is a sizeable option by any league’s standard. The Chiefs stylistically are akin to the stereotypical style of rugby adopted in France, as their success has been built upon supremacy up front.
Elsewhere, the likes of Sam Underhill, Sam Lewis, Dan Thomas and Blair Cowan suggest the league still has not moved away from playing those that have the characteristics of a conventional openside. Obviously, France don’t have opensides per se, but there are still signs that the league is moving away from utilising more mobile flankers, specifically when compared to the Celtic nations.
This disparity between the Top 14 and the rest is possibly an insight into why the national team, and the clubs in European competitions fade in the latter stages of matches. France have developed a reputation in recent years of slowing down after 60 minutes, which was abundantly clear in 2019.
Against Wales in the Six Nations and the RWC, France led for much of those matches but lost the game in the final quarter as the fitter Welsh team maintained intensity. The same happened against Argentina at the RWC, but they managed to hold on.
A big pack is often conducive to dominance in the opening stages of a match, as teams can bulldoze their way through the opposition who struggle to get a foothold in the game. But it does come at a price towards the end. There will always be exceptions, but smaller players will be fitter and more mobile.
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Of course, this is only one position, but looking at the type of openside deployed is indeed a great indicator of a team’s philosophy.
On this particular weekend, the different selections may have been predicated on the conditions or the opponents, which must be taken into account. So while one weekend’s set of selections are not conclusive about anything, they do adhere to certain stereotypes and nuances between different countries.
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