The Rise of the Second row/Flanker

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The Rise of the Second row/Flanker
PORT ELIZABETH, SOUTH AFRICA - SEPTEMBER 29: Ball carrier Pieter-Steph du Toit of South Africa during the Rugby Championship match between South Africa and Australia at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on September 29, 2018 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. (Photo by Richard Huggard/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

An intriguing trend is emerging across the rugby world. More and more, locks are being utilized as flankers. It seems to be the ‘rise of the second row/flanker’.

From English Premiership rugby, to the Mitre 10 Cup, the use of tall locks as ranging flankers has become fashionable. So, to bring a balance, Last Word on Rugby asks, why is this the case?

It is not necessarily a new idea, although it seems to somewhat defy conventional wisdom; as rugby moves to a more open and free-flowing style. The thinking being that lumbering locks should lose out, as coaches look for greater ability in space across their squads.

Yet, with a quick perusal of this weekend’s international lineups, it shows this trend is increasingly pervasive.

South Africa are at the very forefront of the movement. Pieter-Steph Du Toit returns to the number seven jersey for the Springboks (see main photo), and has really seized his opportunities at the position in recent months – adding to the strength of having Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert on the park altogether.

Their opponents last week, France, countered this reasoning, with their own lock ‘thrown into the back row’. And this weekend Arthur Iturria is once again on the openside for their game with Argentina.

Why the trend in Rugby Union?

Indeed, the list of players that will fit into a second row/flanker role includes Wenceslas Lauret (who will wear number six on Saturday) who has some experience in the second row yet, will start on the flank.

Why the trend? It might be from a strength in numbers.

Then consider Sam Skinner for Scotland, Courtney Lawes for England: everyone is doing it, it seems. Some players begin the match, or like Lawes, they are adaptable to switch from lock to flanker (as required).

The All Blacks now look to have better balance with their own second-row/flanker on the field last week, as was the inclusion of Scott Barrett’s impact – although, with a Brodie Retallick/Sam Whitelock winning combination, what coach in their right mind would ever want to substitute those two men.

It is not just an international trend either; the Leicester Tigers have included five recognized locks in their squad for their game with Gloucester. The question being ‘which one is going to run out in a number six jersey?’ is up to the needs of head coach Geordan Murphy, and the common prevalence of using tall locks in loose back row positions.

Modern Rugby thinking; the lineout is the Key

The prevalence of this tactical option highlights how important the lineout is to the modern game. To win a game of rugby, you have to dominate in the air.

Arthur Iturria of France, Franco Mostert of South Africa during the International Friendly match between France and South Africa (Springboks) at Stade de France on November 10, 2018 in Saint-Denis near Paris, France. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

Building territory with a strong lineout is absolutely crucial. The most devastating set plays are effective off the top, when backlines can ‘run at the opposition’ and having an extra jumper in the line, is a benefit from the Second row/Flanker role.

And when quality lineout ball can be secured from multiple jumping options in the lineout, then, the maul remains an immensely important tool for sides to integrate. That is if the ball is secured.

Disruption to lineout ball handicaps any sort of attacking continuity – as seen during the second half of the England v New Zealand’s game. After Barrett’s introduction off the bench, England’s lineout faltered badly and as such, they were unable to produce a number of second-half steals that earned New Zealand dominance at set-piece (one disallowed charge-down try aside).

Barrett’s presence gave New Zealand another featured lineout jumper as soon as he entered the game. It was a masterful ploy, in freeing Brodie Retallick to ‘hunt down and to track’ Maro Itoje and win ball against the throw [very uncommon in modern rugby}.

Ireland, and the case of Peter O’Mahony

Ireland have used Iain Henderson in the back row previously, however regular blindside starter Peter O’Mahony is further proof of the lineout’s importance. The backrower is versatile, and with use for his country – and tried during the British and Irish Lions tour – can be a useful ‘tool’ in the setpiece.

A modern strategy, though O’Mahony’s abilities stretch far beyond his ability as a jumper, he is a noted operator in this regard. Ireland have real strength in the second row and though both Henderson and Tadhg Beirne have extensive experience at club level in the back row, neither is required to be deployed there internationally, such is O’Mahony’s skill.

The Munster man has been crucial for both Ireland and the Lions over the last couple of years, particularly in disrupting at the lineout. His brilliance in this area has helped make Ireland’s set-piece strong both in defence and attack.

They have reaped the rewards, and the second row/flanker position is a successful role in the modern game now.

Modern rugby Law changes have played their part

In addition, law changes at the breakdown have likely had an influence. Poaching the ball as a jackler is now – on the whole – more strenuously officiated.

Having a number of players able to spring back to their feet quickly after making a tackle is less valuable, with players now required to get back to their own side before competing for the ball. As a result, turnovers now largely come from supporting players arriving and getting in strong positions over the ball.

Rugby is, therefore, more than ever a collisions game. Thus, smaller flankers are perhaps gradually being phased out.

All Blacks in waiting or....just Wanting
(L-R) Vaea Fifita, Angus Ta’avao, Dane Coles and Ofa Tu’ungafasi runs through drills during the New Zealand All Blacks Captain’s Run at the Arcs Urayasu Park on November 2, 2018 in Urayasu, Chiba, Japan. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

True of the openside flanker, but more so at blindside, where athletic types like Vaea Fifita, can play a role in the physical battle that has prevailed over the last three years. With three second rows in the pack, teams have several big ball-carriers to build around, and rotate with.

Locks are traditionally strong defenders too, and winning collisions defensively is now paramount to success, with turnovers less common.

The game is increasingly moving from the battle on the floor to the battle in the air.

As a result, locks fitting into more than one place on the field, the so-called second row/flanker position, is becoming more and more common.

“Main photo credit”
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