In his autobiography Size Doesn’t Matter, ex-England and British and Irish Lions flanker Neil Back gave a description of the difficulties facing a small man trying to succeed in a big man’s game. It was by turns poignant, shocking and darkly comic.
Like his predecessor Andy Robinson, Back struggled to turn the heads of England coaches Geoff Cooke and Jack Rowell at the start of his international career, because he was only 5-foot-10-inches tall and tipped the scales at less than 14 stones dripping wet.
‘Backy’ told me in an interview that he remembered Cooke going to some lengths to ignore him – literally – when their paths happened to cross in the corridor at England’s team hotel:
“It was at that moment I learned it was possible to become invisible, whatever you did on the field and however good you or other commentators on the game felt you were. I even wrote a letter to Jack Rowell in 1997 asking what areas of my game he wanted me to improve in order to enhance my prospects of being picked. Incredibly, I never even received a reply.”
It took the arrival of Clive Woodward and Phil Larder in the England coaching set-up to remove the cloak of invisibility and reveal what a very good international footballer Neil Back could be.
He went on to win 66 caps for England and five more for the Lions on two separate tours. His doppelganger in Australia, Michael Hooper, has won almost twice as many caps for his country in a glittering career spanning more than a decade, but Hooper still hasn’t won over some of his countrymen: ‘Not physical enough; sea-gulling out in the backs; ‘rag-dolled’ by bigger opponents’. The litany of whinges goes on and on.
Eddie Jones may just be wanting to have his cake and eat it. At his first training camp on the Gold Coast, Hooper was spotted in the likely Wallaby leadership group.
On the other hand, the new head coach also name-checked Rebels’ No 7 Brad Wilkin as one of the two players who impressed him most (along with his Rebels’ teammate Carter Gordon) during the three-day camp.
At six-feet-two-inches tall and over 105 kilos, Wilkin is a much bigger unit than either Michael Hooper or his nearest like-for-like (Queensland’s Fraser McReight) in the Australian squad, and he has played on both sides of the scrum for the Rebels, whereas Hooper and McReight are only ever likely to play on the openside flank at international level.
Eddie Jones may be foreseeing the same flexible, multi-faceted role for Wilkin that he envisaged for Tom Curry during his stint as England coach. Curry was selected in all three of the back row positions during Eddie’s time in charge at Twickenham.
He began international life in his natural spot at No 7, but was then shifted onto the blindside flank, as an emergency spare part in England’s lineout on the way to the 2019 World Cup final, where he had Sam Underhill for company at No 7 with Billy Vunipola filling the space at the back of the scrum
At the start of a new World Cup cycle post-2019, Jones persisted with the twin openside theory, with Tom Curry again the player asked to switch roles. In 2020-2021 he was groomed as the long-term solution to the number 8 position, with Underhill and Courtney Lawes bookending him in the back row.
With the ball-in-play time in Australian Super Rugby Pacific matches running at an historic low – 33 minutes compared to a 35.5 average among the five sides from New Zealand, 37 across Irish teams in the URC and 38 in the English Premiership – Brad Wilkin could be the man to answer the call for sustained effort in the final quarter.
As Eddie Jones observed in his time at the RFU, “We have parameters for how quickly they [the players] get off the ground. I think some of the blokes used to have a cup of tea and a scone with jam and cream before they got off the ground. It was terrible.”
Eddie called it ‘tactical periodisation’, which is a fancy name for getting people back on to their feet, and back in the game more quickly at the pointy end of the game.
Australia’s nearest neighbours from across the Tasman are doing the same, picking a man who started life at No 7 (Ardie Savea) in the middle of their back row, with a big hybrid (all 6’4 and 110 kilos of Dalton Papali’i) alongside him.
Eddie Jones has explicitly said that beating the All Blacks at their own game, and preferably in their own backyard, is one of Australia’s most urgent priorities.
What do the raw stats say? Let’s take a look at a snapshot after seven rounds of Super Rugby Pacific 2023, first on attack:
Here are the figures on defence:
On attack, the two bigger blokes (Wilkin and Papali’i) get through more work, more effectively. Papali’i had the most metres-per-carry (an astronomical 7.3 metres per pop) and the most line breaks (3), while Wilkin carried more often than anyone else.
Both provided a lineout option on their own throw with four takes apiece. On defence, they also had the highest tackle completion rates, with Wilkin once again topping the work-rate charts while Fraser McReight was the most dangerous on-baller.
Does that mean the small No 7 will be cast out into Backy-land, on the outer for World Cup selection? Hardly. Michael Hooper will undoubtedly be cut plenty of slack, for his proven ability to raise his game so often, and in so many different areas in times past. At the same time, Brad Wilkin is making a strong case for selection according to the principles Eddie Jones has said will apply to all of the rugby teams he coaches.
While Wilkin may not replace Hooper in the starting line-up, it is quite conceivable the Rebels’ skipper could find himself playing alongside the great NSW man in the same back-row.
On defence, Wilkin is probably better as a tackler than he is on the pilfer, and that is why the coaching group at Melbourne regularly partner him with jackler Richard Hardwick:
In the first example, there is a coruscating hit on second row Sam Whitelock from the round nine game against the Crusaders, which sends the ball flying up in the air, sparking a Rebels counter-attack. In the second instance from the match versus the Waratahs in round three, Wilkin is able to draw just enough attention on the pilfer to attract Michael Hooper to the first ruck. That in turn eases Hardwick into penalty-winning action against the under-resourced second breakdown which follows.
But it is Brad Wilkin’s work rate in a big body that will interest Eddie Jones the most. Here is a lung-bursting support run from the third quarter of the Crusaders’ game:
The sheer number of Wilkin’s double involvements, with one good action immediately backed up and improved by a second, will fit with his head coach’s parameters “for how quickly [they] get off the ground” very nicely indeed, thank you. There are no cups of tea sipped, or any scones with jam and cream nibbled before Brad Wilkin reloads and returns to action:
This is the flame-haired Rebel, slowing the ball up in a joint hold-up tackle with Trevor Hosea before pilfering the tackle ball presented by Waratahs halfback Jake Gordon on the very next play.
On attack, Wilkin will run until he drops:
There is no quit after the deft transfer out to Lachie Anderson on the right wing, the Melbourne captain is up in support to drill through Hooper at the following cleanout, 30 metres further upfield. That oils the wheels for another half-bust by Cabous Eloff and a break by Carter Gordon on the next phase of attack.
Neil Back’s bête noir with England, Geoff Cooke, might well have had a point when prophesied at the very end of the amateur era:
“Our belief is the role of the openside flanker is changing.
“The line out is becoming important, and you have to have the ability to be dynamic in carrying the ball forward in congested areas.
“That’s why we are looking differently at the traditional image of the open-side flanker in this country.
“We are looking to break the mould and Steve [Bath number 8 Steve Ojomoh] could possibly be an answer.”
South Africa, France and Argentina would almost certainly acquiesce with Cooke. If Eddie Jones agrees too, then we will probably see Brad Wilkin on the openside flank instead of Michael Hooper for Australia’s World Cup preparatory matches.
More likely, the ex-Randwick man will be looking for more sustained efforts, more double involvements, an increased number of sprints and fewer plays taken off in the back row he selects. That could create a spot for the Melbourne skipper alongside Hooper rather than instead of him.
He will tackle and work hard; he can win some lineout ball and do a bit of hard carrying while providing the extra endeavour Jones requires. Whether Wilkin has the point-of-difference in skill-set needed to play Test football is another matter. Only time will tell whether he has what it takes to succeed, and the answer will become evident sooner rather than later.
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