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Number eight: the quintessential rugby player

Brodie Retallick has been the victim of a number of concussions. (Source: AFP PHOTO / Michael Bradley)
Roar Guru
24th October, 2013
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6173 Reads

Every position in rugby has its beauty.

The prop’s perfect posture under duress, the hooker’s pinpoint throw, the lock high in the sky, the flank’s swooping steal, a spiraling touch-finder by a fly-half, the gymnastics of a scrum-half, the crash tackle in midfield.

The searing pace to the corner and a dive by the flashy wing, or a fullback joining the line at pace with the ball in two hands and wholly unpredictable.

But I love playing rugby from the number eight position, and I love watching number eights.

Aren’t number eights the very definition of rugby players? And aren’t they influential on the field, and many times, off the field, too?

These big marauders, who can switch on to attack or defence instantaneously, must be able to tackle anyone, in a wide variety of situations.

This position has to have grunt and mongrel, and often must play all 80 minutes, but unique to forwards, must have vision and make quick decisions with the ball.

A number eight controls the movement and feeding of ball to halfback, and in the final analysis, must elect to pick up or not.

They look like rugby players.

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Taking English, French, Italian, Kiwi, Scottish, South African, and Australian statistics from the last couple of years, and removing outliers, a Test number eight is about 6’3″ or 6’4″, and between 107-113 kg.

Nice size, I think. This makes them less vulnerable to mismatches.

My family plays an annual one-club tournament in golf; some guys pick a five-iron, some a hybrid, others a seven-iron, to play an entire round.

A driver can’t chip; a wedge can’t drive. Number eights are the perfect blend of forward and back.

If you could find a way to field a team of players from only one position, I’d go with a number eight.

Just picture this match-day squad: Zinzan Brook, Martin Corry, Buck Shelford, Morné du Plessis, Jamie Heaslip, Toby Faletau, Lawrence Dallaglio, Mervyn Davies, Brian Lochore, Hennie Muller, Kieren Read, Louis Picamole, Michael Jones, Toby Faletau, Duane Vermeulen, Sergio Parisse, Pat Lam, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Gary Teichmann, Pierre Spies, Imanol Harinordoquy, and a guy that Aussies miss just a bit, Wycliff Palu.

The skill and brains and size and acumen and ‘rugby speed’ in that list is staggering.

And I left out Dean Richards, the hard and skillful Jim Telfer, Alun Pask, heroic Willie Duggan, and the brilliant Jim Greenwood.

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Put Zinzan at fly-half, Corry, Dallaglio and Parisse in the front row, Teichmann and Read in the second row, Picamole at outside centre, Lam at 12, Spies and Michael Jones at wing, and Shelford at fullback, or any other permutation.

Eighth-men can play all over the park.

We’re used to combining, linking, connecting, creating chances. A great number eight combines seamlessly with his halfback, but also ‘locks’ his locks at scrum into the perfect height, hunts with his flank brethren, and links with his backline.

As Zinzan put it:

“A number eight has such an important role to release wingers, the fly-half and full-back,” he said.

“You don’t necessarily have good footballing skills, but you have to have a good awareness of creating space.

“When you’re looking at the ball at the base of the scrum you must have that innate sense of position, of knowing where your team-mates are.”

The conversation with our own scrum-half is about what we see developing. Will we pick and go? Will we flip it through the legs?

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Will we go at first, but then pop it to him on the blind-side? Or will it all change, because the scrum disintegrates?

The art and skill of salvaging a scrum on the back foot is a subject all its own; picking up a ball, or controlling it to milk a penalty, is never really easy.

The passes that a number eight throws are often, almost always, made under pressure.

A number eight also has a chat with the opposition scrum-half. Again, Zinzan:

“The number eight should have a psychological advantage over the opposing scrum-half, the little guys who are like big roosters!

“Former South Africa scrum-half Joost van der Weisthuizen was a classic. He would come up to you at the back of a scrum and say ‘I’m going to get this ball off you’ – well, that’s one of the nicer things he would say!”

Number eights are usually at the back of the lineout, where they can poach more easily, bark instructions, and try to hunt down the opposition backs.

For many teams, the number eight is the primary ball-carrier (this was true of Vermeulen in The Rugby Championship).

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A lot of teams use their number eight to hang back in open play to field punts, Picamoles is a good example.

So, they often get their hands on the ball more than any other forward.

On attack and defence, a good number eight stays within one or two passes of the ball, a great one is within one pass of the ball.

Watch the best number eight in the world right now – Kieran Read goes to the ball or the ball-carrier or the tackler, it’s as if he is magnetically drawn.

This may not be widely known, but the number position evolved in South Africa in the 1920s, even though it was christened in New Zealand.

Before World War I, a number of scrum patterns were tried: 3-3-2 or 3-2-3 packs.

New Zealand stuck with a ‘diamond’ scrum (2-3-2) with a detachable wing forward who doubled as a kind of second scrum-half. A three-man front-row was only mandated in 1931.

In the early days, forwards did not have fixed positions; the first forwards up for a scrum were the first to pack down, although there was usually a designated hooker.

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The Aussies and French experimented with fixed places in a 3-2-3 formation; and in 1923, England did so, too.

England won the Grand Slam that year, and from then on, the Home Unions had fixed positions. The middle man of the three-man back row was called a ‘lock’.

Down in South Africa, the bitter rivalry between the University of Stellenbosch and the University of Cape Town led to the number eight.

UCT’s fly-half, Bennie Osler, was hurting Stellenbosch with his tactical kicking.

Stellenbosch developed a 3-4-1 pack, so that the wing-forwards flanking the second row could get to Osler faster.

Serendipitously, this formation also improved scrum power.

By 1928 the Springboks used the 3-4-1 against the All Blacks. New Zealand, beaten 17-0 in the first Test, and demolished in the scrum, adapted quickly.

The first ‘number eight’ at Stellenbosch, while not named such, was André McDonald, who was not fast enough for a back and not big enough for a forward.

So the prototype for the number eight evolved as a much looser player than its forerunner: the ‘lock’.

The Springboks demonstrated the new scrum formation and back-row tactics to the Home Unions in 1932-33, and in 1933 to Australia (successes for the Boks).

Everyone but Scotland switched to the solo back-rower; the Scots kept the old 3-2-3 system until the mid-1950s.

Finding a name for the position took some time. The Home Unions called him a ‘lock’. Australians referred to the position as ‘anchor-man’ or ‘solo-lock’. To the French he was ‘le troisième ligne centre’.

South Africans called him the eighthman. In the South Island of New Zealand, a fashion developed to abbreviate that to number eight, and the All Blacks’ back-row man wore number eight in Tests in Dunedin in 1936 and Christchurch in 1937.

When post-war Tests resumed in 1946, New Zealand regularly numbered their back-row man in the eight jersey.

The number eights I esteem the highest are:

Shelford, because he did all that a number eight must do, superbly, and captained the All Blacks and they never lost under him. He was the definition of tough, and he was without fear and he had to win.

Muller, because he led South Africa to a 1949 whitewash over the All Blacks, and was legendary for running the opposition backline down. Known as ‘windhond’, he was a fearsome tackler with uncanny stamina.

He was universally hailed as the definitive ‘eighth-man’ of his day, but never wore an eight shirt in a Test, although by 1951 the British press referred to him as the team’s number eight.

Morne du Plessis, because he knew how to win, but was so smart at leading men, and could play tight or loose, and linked seamlessly.

Dallaglio, because he won so many crowns and trophies and medals and dominated the field going forward or tackling, like a warrior. And every opponent hated him.

Zinzan, because he was an absolutely brilliant all-round player, confident to an extreme, and scored 17 tries in Test matches, leaving aside his sublime 47m drop goal.

Lam, because he led his team astutely, was fast and aggressive, super-athletic, and uncompromising in defence.

Davies, because he was so ‘swervy’, and won the Grand Slam and the Triple Crown, and was Wales’ best forward, and then was the Lions’ heartbeat as they triumphed over the All Blacks and the Springboks.

Read, who is still creating his legend.

What about you?

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