Rugby legends tend to arise in groups
Former international cricket umpire Dickie Bird, with Australian Rugby Union player Michael Lynagh. AP Photo/Stefan Rousseau
Rugby is a game built upon teamwork. I think one of the greatest demonstrations of this is in players frequently rising to greatness in the trios or pairs of their minor units.
By minor unit I mean the team within the team, within the team.
Front row is one such unit, they exist within a secondary unit of the tight five, itself a subset of the forward pack which itself is a unit within the overall team. Teamwork is required within minor units for successful rugby.
In today’s article, I want to focus on that most granular group and how frequently strong players rise together improving each other as they go.
You can look at the Olo Brown, Sean Fitzpatrick and Craig Dowd front row from the All Blacks, the Tony Daly, Phil Kearns and Ewen McKenzie front row for the Wallabies. These are front rows that stand out long after their retirement.
I’m sure a number of Aussie scrum knockers will criticise me for mentioning that Aussie front row alongside that All Black one, but Australia has not had as strong a front row unit since then.
Those three are absolutely a trio that rose and had success together, capped by the 1991 World Cup win.
I always laugh when I recall Tony Daly being credited with the try in that final because McKenzie had his hands on that ball as they grounded it together.
I think more recently we can actually look at the Reds front row from a couple of years ago. Calling themselves the Tripod, Ben Daley, Saia Fainga’a and Laurie Weeks had quite a bit of success taking tightheads against some much more fancied packs.
They certainly have not been the same players at scrum time since Weeks broke up the band and moved to the Rebels.
A front row is always going to be judged on their scrum work and a trio that know each other well can hit with good timing, control the height of the scrum and work as a unit to counter what the opposition throw at them.
Second rowers often rise in pairs. The most prominent of the modern era have been the Bulls and Springbok duo of Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha. Modern locks tend to be paired with a lighter number four who controls lineouts and a heavier number five who locks the scrum driving in behind the tighthead.
Matfield was a superb lineout exponent and Botha provided the power needed from a five. The Irish pair of Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan split the role a little less distinctly but also rose together as a unit.
John Eales formed two really strong partnerships during his career, in the early part he worked well with the more senior Rod McCall and later he partnered very strongly with David Giffin.
In the back row, it can be tough to get outstanding players in all three positions delivering everything that is required. Ball poaching, inside defence and running are all needed to be added to a third lineout option and set piece contribution.
The Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw and Keiran Read trio at the last World Cup were exceptional.
Halfbacks and five eighths are another basic unit and certainly having a great player in one position without a strong player in the other weakens their effectiveness.
In Australia we’ve had some great combinations, with Nick Farr-Jones and Michael Lynagh being one such pair. Will Genia and Quade Cooper have built a fantastic rapport playing together for the Reds and Wallabies.
Probably the most indelibly linked pair in Australia has been George Gregan and Stephen Larkham, who were such a tight nit pair for the Brumbies and Wallabies that they share the naming rights to a stand at Bruce Stadium.
Obviously centres work together and the Tim Horan and Jason Little pairing is one of the best we’ve seen in Australia. In more recent times the South African pair of Jean de Villiers and Jacque Fourie worked really well together and for the All Blacks Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith have been brilliant.
Going back in time, the likes of Jeremy Guscott and Will Carling were a strong pairing as were Frank Bunce and Walter Little.
From that group, Tim Horan and Frank Bunce are my favourites. They were stand out players but they were lifted by (and lifted in turn) their centre partners.
When it comes to the outside backs, I struggle to think of a trio who really worked together and were stronger when all three were on the pitch. Hopefully some Roarers who actually like back play can nominate some players in this space.
I think it is interesting that individually limited players can make a great unit, I’m constantly drawn back to the David Wilson, Matt Cockbain and Totai Kefu back row for the Wallabies. As a unit, they were greater than the sum of their parts.
Wilson was an out and out fetcher/breakdown specialist, Cockbain provided the lineout option and tackled anything that moved, Kefu played the classic number eight ball running and linking role.
I cannot look at any of those three and say they were a individually a complete player, but they created a very complete and balanced backrow that brought the Wallabies great success.
I actually think the David Pocock, Scott Higginbotham and Wycliff Palu backrow that the Wallabies are using now has the potential to be similarly complete.
I think Palu’s injuries and Higginbotham improving his judgement of when to play tight and when to play loose are the keys for this group.
I’m not saying that Pocock, Higginbotham and Palu would be the same style as Wilson, Cockbain and Kefu, but I do think they can be similarly complete in performing all the functions needed from a backrow.
The main point I’m trying to highlight in this article is that greats frequently arise together as part of a working unit.
Front rowers need good second rowers, the modern contract exists such that as long as the four and five push, one and three will lift them come lineout time. Centres need halves, backs need forwards.
I’m not sure if forwards need backs but there must be a reason other than maintaining the status quo that we keep them around.
It will be interesting to see which of the mini-battles between units comes off on Saturday. Both the Chiefs and Sharks have quality groups in their front rows, second rows, back rows, halves.
The centres for both teams have been disrupted, but for both of them, their most dangerous players are there.
Will it be one or more of those key groups that swings the match? Or will it be those unsung men, waiting out on the cold, cold wings who have a major say?
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