The evolution of the rugby forward pack
265 Have your say
- Rugby Union news
- Rugby World Cup 2011 news
- International Rugby Union - Six Nations, Heineken Cup, Rugby Championship news
- Rugby 2011 news
Last week, many of us discussed the evolution of the rugby backline with the focus being on the major change in the physicality of the centre pairing, in particular, the inside centre.
This week I’d like to discuss the effect that professionalism and changes in laws have had on defining the roles of forward packs, in particular the open-side flanker.
It is an obvious fact that all forwards have become bigger and more powerful since the game went professional. Leaving that aside, the biggest transformation in the professional age for the forward pack has been the changes to the significance of the set piece and to the breakdown or phase play.
This has seen a change in focus and the rise in prominence of the open-side flanker.
Despite what some in the media would have you think, the significance of the set piece has diminished over the years to the point that it is comparatively of little significance to what it once was.
I can hear many pundits ready to denounce this as nonsense.
“Back in the good old days it was a utopian state of running rugby,” they might say.
Corris Thomas, the IRB Game Analysis Unit Head, recently found this notion to be false. Thomas’ study of archive footage from the 1970′s showed that games had on average 38 scrums and 63 lineouts. That’s 101 set pieces per 80min of rugby. When you compare that to today, which has on average 41 set pieces (17 scrums/24 line-outs) as recorded at last year’s World Cup, that is an amazing change.
When you consider there were on average 162 ruck/mauls per 80 min in 2011, compared to only 31 rucks/mauls per game on average in the 70′s we can safely say the game has changed. I think the 400% extra ruck/mauls and the 150% less set pieces shows that the game is completely different, as is the subsequent role of the forward pack.
If we make a more recent comparison we still see a monumental change. From data gathered at the most recent amateur and professional World Cups we see a ratio of 2.5 rucks/mauls for every scrum in 1995. At last year’s World Cup it was 10 rucks/mauls for every one scrum.
Yes folks, the breakdown is now ten times as prevalent as the scrum and this has made a huge change in the make up of the 80 minute rugby match.
In 1995 there were on average 69 ruck/mauls whereas mentioned earlier, in 2011 there were 162. If you compare the amount of passing and kicking from 1995 to 2011 we see that passing has doubled since the game went professional and that kicking out of hand has declined by 45%. All these statistics are for all to see in the IRB 2011 World Cup Statistical Review led by Mr Thomas.
The fuddy-duddy brigade are simply having a laugh when they tell us the game was once all about running rugby.
But have these changes reached a crescendo? Well, arguably not. If we compare the past two World Cups, 2007 to 2011, we saw on average; seven fewer lineouts, two fewer scrums, 18 more rucks/mauls and subsequently 38 more passes per match. The game is still evolving.
This is all intertwined with the fact that teams now have to have the ability to recycle ball with almost monotonous regularity. At the 2011 World Cup, breakdown-ball was recycled 94% of the time by the team in possession (interestingly Australia topped the averages with 96% of ball retention). Today phase play is everything, whereas in yesteryear the set piece and first phase play was king.
There are less scrums today because professionalism has brought about a much higher skill level. You only have to watch one of the games on ESPN classic to see this for yourself. In the days of Ella, Lynagh and co you could not rely on the ball being recycled too often. So backlines in particular were more likely to throw the thing around from first phase and they were indeed more likely to drop it.
Today it is irresponsible to play with such gay abandon. Why risk drop ball and or isolation when you know that if you go into contact you are almost certainly going to get another crack. And possibly at a defence that has committed too many to that particular ruck. After all, 73% of tries at last year’s World Cup came from phase play ball.
All this has seen a change in the role of the pack.
Through necessity, packs must be able to retain all this extra possession at ruck time and all forwards must now contribute with expertise at the breakdown. It is still advantageous to have the upper hand at set pieces but you can get away with an inferior scrum or lineout nowadays.
You just need to look at the 2011 quarter final between South Africa and Australia and consider that the Australian set piece was annihilated. Yet they still won because they were dominant at the breakdown.
With the focus moving away from the set piece since the end of the amateur game, arguably the biggest individual change in the modern forward pack has come from the open-side wing-forward, breakaway or flanker. Before the professional era these were a different breed and played the game completely differently to the modern open-side.
At the end of the amateur era Michael Jones, arguably the most influential of the amateur open sides, was a revolutionary in his supporting lines and work rates but he played at a time where the breakdown pilfering was far less a significant thing to be able to do.
The laws were different for starters and due to amateurism as mentioned, phase play was far less attainable. Therefore the open-side’s role was to try to make the first tackle in each first phase and to try to be the first to each breakdown. After all, it was unlikely there would be a second phase. Indeed, in the days of rucking, these brave souls were pounded at the bottom of most breakdowns.
But the openside was no more important than any other of the ‘piggies’ and arguably less important at a time where scrums and lineouts were everything.
Then came professionalism and changes in laws, which saw the emergence of the likes of George Smith and Richie McCaw to suit the evolution of the game. And now we have seen the emergence of their evolutionary superior. David Pocock is now the apex predator of world rugby and arguably the most influential player on the planet.
With the amazing amount of phase play today, the no 7′s have had to evolve into a completely different species. He no longer tries to hit almost every ruck like his ancestor Jones – it would be humanly impossible to make it to 160 odd rucks.
Instead he focuses on choosing his time to strike carefully in order to do the most important thing on the modern rugby field. He aims to pilfer or slow down ball at crucial tactical moments and disrupt the 94% of ball retention by the team in possession.
Pocock is the best pilferer on the planet and his ability to withstand the monsters that try to clear him out better than any other makes him the most influential of all that play the most influential position in the game.
Indeed an interesting leadership swing has occurred lately.
So many no 7′s in world rugby are now captain of their country, when in past decades captains were rarely a player out of the ‘spine’. At present New Zealand, Australia, England, France and Wales have a captain that plays open-side (Dusatoir may wear 6 but don’t let that fool you).
That is five of the top six nations in the current rankings with a captain with the main role to pilfer or slow down phase ball. This is a new phenomenon and an indication of just how much the game has changed and how influential a world-class no 7 is today.
The no 7 now outranks even the no 8 and the no 10 as the face of modern rugby. His partner in crime, the modern scrum half (who now sees two and three times more ball than he once did), can also now influence the game more now than ever before.
The game is indeed ever-evolving and that is what makes our game the most interesting spectacle on the planet.
I will leave you with another interesting fact. 50% of scrums between top tier nations collapsed at last year’s World Cup. When second tier nations played each other only 19% of scrums collapsed. It seems less power is needed at scrum time and much credit should go to the IRB for using these stats as a basis to change the scrum’s engagement sequence for next year.
This will only further negate the focus in set piece and, as long as it doesn’t go too far, I think the game will be better as a result.
Watch Ashes Day 2 Video Highlights - Produced by The Roar
Video produced by Riordan Lee.
Wallabes vs Wales - Scott Allen's match highlights -