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The Magnificent Seven: the best openside flankers ever

Mark Ella and his 1984 Grand Slam Wallabies colleagues. AAP Image/Sergio Dionisio
Roar Guru
23rd October, 2012
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9525 Reads

When John Sturges directed an adaptation of the Seven Samurai in 1960 called ‘The Magnificent Seven’ I am pretty sure he was not expecting his movie to be the title of a rugby article some 52 years later.

This is about seven men who have worn a jumper bearing that number in the running game. Men who not only wore it, but by their performances enshrined the open-side flanker as one of the most revered positions on a rugby park.

These ‘Magnificent 7’ I am to tell you of, are in my opinion the authors of what we readers now understand is ‘the openside flanker.’ They are the pioneers of the position.

They are a rare tough breed; they are the first to arrive and last to leave; they are gun-fighters with their own warrior code of ‘do whatever it takes to win the ball.’ They are heroes to some; magnificent to most.

Laalui Michael Niko Jones of New Zealand and Samoa

The Iceman. God’s warrior in Heaven is the Arch-Angel Michael, and Michael Jones has carried the name on earth with the faith of a champion.

To think Michael Jones played 55 tests for New Zealand and one for Samoa yet never on a Sunday leaves the question how many could he have played, and how well?

For me, Jones completely revolutionised the game of the wing forward. He was complete and near perfect in everything he did. In the time before line-out lifting Jones could be seen at the back of a line out with boots near opponent’s knees challenging for the ball.

Jones’ running play, in particular his linking with outside backs was a highlight, and a quality only the very best openside flankers possess. Jones could run with backs and equally look at home with the likes of Schuster, Green and Gallagher as they carved the opposition apart.

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Coupled with superb pace and agility, Jones in full cry was simply a joy to watch. Not only could Jones run, he was tough as old boots and was rarely far from the hard work in tight.

Jones’ work at the breakdown was uniquely committed, and furthered the open side mantra of ‘continuity at all costs.’ I particularly recall Concord Oval in 1987 against Australia and again at Eden Park in 1993 against the British Lions, Jones dove like superman towards breakdowns to secure possession that had yet to reach terra-firma.

Jones took the ball in mid-flight, rolled and got to his feet and continued the charge. Simply awesome to watch and personified absolute dedication to the team effort.

The magnificence in Jones for me was his dedication, not only to his faith but also to Auckland, All Black and Samoan rugby. A true magnificent champion is Michael Jones.

John Fergus Slattery of Ireland

The Shamrock of Ireland has three clovers of St Patrick that the Saint used to remind the native Irish of the Holy Trinity.

Like St Patrick, Slattery had his own trinity; skill, pace and endurance.

Slattery’s ability to play for 80 minutes is testament to his near inexhaustible fitness.

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The Dubliner debuted in 1970 against the Springboks and by 1984 Slattery had accumulated 61 test matches for Ireland and four as a British Lion.

The highlights for Slattery were being an integral member of the 1974 Lions team against South Africa who are known as ‘The Invincibles.’ The Lions won the spiteful series 3-0, a series that could be described as a mix between rugby and open conflict. Slattery starred in all tests and captained the Lions twice during the tour for midweek games.

His try against Western Province was a sublime expression of ability that many wingers today could not have scored, let alone a flanker. Slattery and the ’74 Lions set a benchmark for those who have followed.

Slattery possessed leadership evident during his captaincy of Ireland in Australia in 1979. At a time when Australian rugby was commencing a renaissance after defeats of Wales and New Zealand in 1978, Slattery’s men downed the Wallabies 2-0 in a series where Australia was simply outclassed.

The crowning moment for Slattery was Ireland’s Triple Crown in 1982, and was only denied a Grand Slam by the French.

Slattery is widely admired for his directness and humour. Whilst commentating an All Black match his co-commentator said as Sean Fitzpatrick was being lead from the field “I think he has broken his nose,” to which Slattery quipped, “No, I think someone has broken it for him.”

It was known Slattery would play for Ireland on Saturday and for his club Blackrock on Sunday. He never was aloof or above either, a humble hero indeed.

Well played Fergus.

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George Smith of Australia

When David Wilson was coming to the end of his wonderful career George Smith burst onto the international rugby scene and quickly established himself as a genuine rugby player that demanded attention.

Smith brought Australian forward play into the new millennium. Smith did everything expected of a Wallaby openside and more. His prowess at the breakdown is legendary. Often bodies would pour into a breakdown yet Smith somehow would prevail and appear with the ball.

He was a master thief.

In his magnificent 110 test career Smith scored nine tries. The Cromer High Old Boy knew how to find the line and when and where to link with his backs to create overlaps. Smith could also run, step and pass, which made him a highly effective attacking player.

Smith could run with the inside backs offloading to support after engaging multiple defenders. George Smith, in all facets of forward play, was a handful for any opposition.

Ask Dan Carter how well George Smith can tackle. Smith was a pocket battleship in defence. Time and time again he could read attacking play and shut down the threat before it eventuated. Smith never shirked taking on bigger players and simply felled them and stole their ball for good measure. A true rugby ninja.

For me Smith is the only flanker that could go toe-to-toe with Richie McCaw in the modern era and that is a compliment in itself. Australia has been blessed with some wonderful openside flankers but none greater that Smith. A truly magnificent player and rugby man.

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Finlay Calder of Scotland

A captain’s captain.

Whilst only having a relative short international career from 1986-1991 where he achieved 34 caps for his native Scotland and 3 for the British Lions Calder has left his impression on the game that still echoes today.

Calder was a no-nonsense player who knew what was required to win and set himself to the task. The Scot was not outstanding at anything apart from ensuring his opposite was less outstanding than himself by employing any and all means possible.

Calder had the ability to work effectively in concert with those around him. This quality must have contributed to Calder being named captain of the 1989 British Lions tour of Australia that possessed a touring party of big personalities including Brian Moore, Gareth Chillcott, Mike Teague and Will Carling.

Whilst many say Australia had more class than the Lions, Calder ensured the Australians knew they were not tougher. Calder led an orchestrated assault on Australian rugby at Ballymore that stunned the Australians and has been a blueprint for British and Irish teams since on how to beat the Wallabies since.

It comes as no surprise that whilst Calder played for Scotland, Murrayfield became a fortress. In his six years in international rugby Scotland lost only twice at home achieving an 86% win ratio. Even Ted Henry would be happy with that statistic.

A magnificent leader of men and openside flanker was Finlay Calder.

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Simon Paul Poidevin of Australia

The man who wouldn’t quit.

Whilst it’s easy to remember Poidevin for his magnificent achievements in rugby, what encapsulates for me Poidevin is how he stood up when others were wilting.

His performances for New South Wales and Australia when against stronger opposition are now legendary. No matter the odds Poidevin was not afraid to take on Tony Shaw one weekend then Cowboy Shaw the next. At times he was the spine of Australian rugby.

A supremely fit athlete, Poidevin was never far from the fray of battle in tight. Although not in the same league as a Jones or Slattery as a running flanker, Poidevin knew how to support those who could run evident in his try at Twickenham in 1984 when he just hung off the inside shoulders of Ella and Lynagh all match and reaped his reward.

Whilst the 1984 Grand Slam was Ella’s glory, Poidevin was pivotal in all tests in gaining ascendency over some very good home nation packs.

Again in 1986 when the Wallabies secured a Bledisloe Cup series victory in New Zealand Poidevin featured as a pillar of strength and grit who was happy to mix it up with the All Blacks.

Captaining his county on four occasions with three victories is testament to his leadership quality.

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The crowning moment for Poidevin was the 1991 Rugby World Cup victory over England at Twickenham. Although his best rugby was behind him, Poidevin was instrumental in keeping the aggressive English pack at bay. Even after being demolished by Mickey Skinner in a big tackle, Poidevin just got on with it. He knew no other way.

Unfashionable but unbreakable was ‘Poido.’

Jean Pierre Rives of France

As a child I grew up reading the Astrix cartoon books that were based upon a small village in ancient Gaul holding out against the Roman Empire.

I get the impression Rives could have featured in such a book as he would look equally at home eating wild boar and fighting Roman invaders as much as he did on the side of a scrum.

Rives was a complete rugby player with an appetite for physicality. Born and raised in the rugby haven of Toulouse, Rives is often remembered for his flowing blonde locks of hair flaying behind his ears as he crashed into rucks and mauls with no thought of self preservation.

Rives embodied everything that is ‘French rugby’; flair, passion and pride.

In his 59 tests for France Rives captained the tri-colours on no less than 34 occasions. Rives did what many players have not been able to do and that is beat the All Blacks at Eden Park.

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On Bastille Day 1979 Rives and his men bested the All Blacks 24-19 in a flowing game of rugby. Rives went on to skipper the French to a Grand Slam in 1981. Clearly Rives was not only a great player but a leader of men.

In later life Rives has forged a career as an artist and sculptor of note. He quietly spends his time near St Tropez tending to his passion.

I would like to think that if anyone knew what the Mona Lisa was actually smirking about it would be Rives, however he is simply too French to tell us.

Rives is a unique and authentic human with a free spirit. We were fortunate to witness him express this sprit on the rugby park. A great flanker.

Richard Hugh McCaw of New Zealand

Standing at six feet, two inches McCaw is the personification of ‘Warrior Flanker.’ He looks naturally at home with a bandaged head, strapped knee and a slight trickle of blood from his nose.

A hard man; this is easy to understand when you know McCaw’s roots are steeped in the borders of Scotland whose history spared only the brave and cunning. If Richie were living around 1300 I am sure he’d lend William Wallace an able sword.

McCaw’s battlefield, however, has been elsewhere, from Lansdowne Road to what was Lancaster Park, and rarely has McCaw tasted defeat. McCaw’s record of 100 test victories in 112 matches with a winning percentage of 89.28% is a record that will stand the test of time and likely never to be bested.

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McCaw is more than statistic though. He is unbeatable in himself. In the dozen times the All Blacks lost with him in the team I would find it hard to say McCaw himself was beaten by his opponent, at best they achieved parity with him.

McCaw has a rare ability to quickly understand the ebb and flow of a game and adapt to it. He feels what the referee will and will not allow and plays his game accordingly. Some call it cheating; this is openside rugby and McCaw is simply better at this than anyone else.

McCaw’s magnificent moment for me was the 2011 Rugby World Cup. It is now understood how badly injured McCaw’s foot was, yet like the warrior McCaw is he just got on with the job of winning.

Even when Aurelien Rougerie took to McCaw’s eyes with his fingers like a bride looking for her lost wedding ring in deep sand, McCaw just got to his feet like the champion he is, effectively telling the French “Is that the best you’ve got?”

Well Richie for me you’re the best there has ever been in the number seven.