The Backrow: Beauty, balance and brutality

PapanuiPirate Roar Pro

By PapanuiPirate, PapanuiPirate is a Roar Pro New author!


22 Have your say

    There has been a lot of ink spent recently on the makeup of the Wallabies backrow. The general consensus seems to be that while Australia has no lack of international level players, there is a lack of a genuine lineout target or the right balance of skills.

    But what is the right balance for a backrow? What are the required skills that must be present in the backrow for a team to be successful? Are there any strict requirements at all?

    In light of the recent discussions I thought it would be helpful to discuss the loose forwards. Let’s have a look at what they bring to the game, and why nothing sparks more debate than a selection at No.8.

    We will look a little at the history of the back row and how we got to where we are today. We will cast our eye over the expertise often asked of the three positions and a few examples from modern sides of how these skills have been balanced or not. We will interrogate what is needed from a backrow and how it is influenced and influences the rest of a rugby side. Finally I’ll make some ill-advised comments on the current Wallaby set up and possibly some other teams as well.

    The way-backrow
    Regarding the history of flankers and eighthmen you can fill several tomes. Suffice to say that there have been many great backrowers in the history of rugby from all parts of the world.

    The important thing to remember with the history of these positions is their roles which, despite having expanded over the years, still retain their core functions.

    Since the days of Sir Brian Lachore, Morne Du Plessis and Greg Davis the core roles of the backrow have been to run hard, tackle harder, mess with opposition ball and provide the crucial link between the forward pack and the backline.

    It is this continuous link to the past where the role of the backrow continues to be built.

    The more things stay the same, the more they change
    For all the skills and heroics of the great amateurs players, when talking about the modern game we need to look at the players who shaped the current era of play.

    For this I believe we have three men to thank for forever defining the arch responsibilities of the backrow. Playing at the end of the amateur era and the beginning of the professional, all three of these men wore black: Wayne Shelford, Michael Jones and Zinzan Brooke.

    Wayne Shelford introduced the role of the Professional Enforcer. He bridged the gap between the old style, physical but dirty player and the relentless, legal physicality of today.

    Michael Jones was the first to bring it all together in one package. His speed around the park (before serious injury took its toll), nose for the ball in ruck and absolute commitment and consistency became a new benchmark for openside play. That consistency was especially evident in the way he went about tackling everything with a pulse, a now unassailable tradition of flankers on both sides of the scrum.

    Finally Zinzan Brooke brought what all coaches look for when trying to find that perfect influential backrower: a touch of absolute, rugby-mastering freak. It’s no surprise that since Brooke took the field backrowers are often considered some of the best all-round players in any team.

    Now I’m not saying these three are the greatest of all time (though they all make my list). They just laid the blueprint for the skillset of modern backrowers: destructive defence, absolute consistency and a touch of magic.

    The beauty – the amazing things a backrow can do
    As it stands today the backrow is something of a barometer for the whole of a professional rugby side. The perceived wisdom is that when the backrow is balanced and operating effectively then the whole team is going well.

    This perception is likely because a backrow that has the right balance for the modern game is effective across the park. In addition to the basic blueprint already discussed, a finely balanced backrow adds value across the park.

    They are key to set piece, breakdown, phase play, link play and defence in a more comprehensive fashion than any other group of players. This is where we see importance of the balance of three players as paramount.

    From the top, the importance of backrowers in the set-piece has grown substantially in the modern game. A balanced backrow maintains the power to contribute at scrum time in this the age of the eight-man shove. Control at the base is now also considered a necessity for any No.8.

    At lineout time a backrow without genuine targets is considered to be a significant Achilles heel. That requires some height and jump in your loose forwards.

    At the breakdown, that traditional battleground of the openside, there must be a spoiler and a protector. The bulk of shifting bodies is generally left to those with smaller numbers on their backs but somewhere in the six through eight there should still be dominance in the clean out.

    When building phases, at least one member of the backrowers should be providing strong carries in the tight loose. Bending the line a pass or two away from the ruck and setting up quick ball. As play opens up it is key for a strong player to act as a link player, adding numbers to a wide attack. This player must either have express pace to add a threat to backline move or exceptional vision to be able to make contribution at the right time. A loose runner is also preferred, making damage runs in the tram tracks or protecting rucks formed at the fringes.

    Finally and obviously there is defence. The backrow to a man should be consistent tacklers with at least one player having the ability to dominate in defensive contact. There should also be a player with an extremely high work rate, making a larger number of tackles.

    This is a lot of roles to be covered by only three players and I would go so far as to say that, aside from a few rare cases, it is practically impossible to have it all. The approach is to take the players you have and get as much of this list as can be reasonably achieved. Sometimes this means sacrificing one role to gain two more. It is important to remember that what must be considered before all else when making backrow selections is, shockingly, which players of the appropriate level you have available.


    The balance – How have the roles been traditionally balanced?
    So how do you get as many of these key elements in your backrow as possible? What has developed is a sort of national consensus of what is required from each position.

    This has developed in isolation in many countries with many similarities, differences and complex comparisons but I will attempt to give a broad-strokes look at some of the approaches around the world.

    Many of these are designed around the limitations of the roles of the backrow and how some combinations can be detrimental to a gameplan.

    A good example is combining your high work rate tackler with your dominant tackler. As wonderful as it might be to watch a player making bone shaking hit after bone shaking hit, this will reduce their effectiveness across a whole game as they tire quickly. Better to split the roles and maintain their production for longer (Thierry Dusautoir is the exception – I don’t care how many South African names you throw at me, he is the greatest tackling flanker of all time).

    Some of the approaches found around the world are:

    The left, right and hammer
    The French and the Springboks prefer what I like to call the ‘left, right and hammer’ technique. They nominate the side of the scrum for a flanker rather than switching based on the scrum’s position on the field. This has the advantage of reducing the uniqueness of the two flanker positions, opening up more players to both roles as they are less defined.

    However this lack of specialisation meant their flankers had to maintain a wider variety of skills and sometimes lacked the more subtle contributions of those from other nations. This has led to samey, strong defensive and breakdown specialists who add less on attack. Typical players include the 2007 era Juan Smith and Schalk Burger (not withstanding his later transformation) and the French duo of Serge Betson and Thierry Dusutoir.

    To counter these limitation is the hammer, a player of such single-minded destructive intent as to be frankly ridiculous. Often larger than their international counterparts, the hammer No.8 makes tackles that hurt and big carries, often capable of breaking the line rather than just bending through sheer power. For South Africa this was Pierre Spies, Dannie Rossouw or Duane Vermuelen. For France look no further the Louis Picamoles.

    The flyer, worker and basher
    The Wallaby method of the flyer, worker and basher is probably the most traditional of this list. The flyer is No.7 with an exceptional feel for the game who pops up everywhere on attack and is an absolute menace at the breakdown. Best exemplified by George Smith who brought a certain amount of freak to the role as well.

    Australians like their No.6s to be workhorses and there have been plenty of lock No.6s in Australian ranks. Owen Finegan is my go to man here, a strong tackler and decent carrier who made tackles and shifted rucks all day long.

    That leaves the No.8 as a big ball carrier, tackler and often creator in the middle of the park. Toutai Kefu is the obvious example.

    The Australian pattern is a good one, really looking to cover the core roles effectively. The weakness is that no player has a definitive wider attacking role and it has not been uncommon for Australian teams to get isolated in the wider channels in the past.

    The pure split
    The All Blacks operate under a pure split model. This is an approach that seeks to obtain as many skills as possible around a consistent framework. That framework is the physical enforcer at blindside, work rate at openside and athleticism at No.8. Each player is very different in their approach and has little cross over with the other.

    The 2011 and 2015 World cup winning trio of Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw and Kieran Read is undoubtedly the most accurate reflection of the style.

    Perhaps that most interesting thing about the All Blacks is that for over a decade they have tended towards having quite a tall average heights across their backrow. At 6’2 McCaw was no runt but has consistently been the shortest backrower in the All Blacks with Kaino, Read, Jerry Collins, Rodney So’oialo and Sione Lauaki all taller. This ensures that there are always plenty of lineout target in any All Blacks pack.

    New Zealand's Richie McCaw walks past Australia's David Pocock

    The men in the north
    The final style I will nominate is a catchall for the home nation’s sides. By and large backrowers from Britain and Ireland have tended towards a very high workrate and limited specialisation.

    English, Irish and Scottish backrows of recent times have focussed on big men, making lots of tackles, hitting lots of rucks and making lots of runs. Players like Chris Robshaw, James Haskell, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony leap to mind.

    The Welsh have tended towards style more in line with New Zealand and Australia with more specialised players along the lines of Taulupe Faletau and Sam Warburton.

    Generally I suspect this is a result of the weather and the enduring “Northern Hemisphere” style of rugby that leans towards bigger players, larger collisions, more set pieces and less ball playing.

    The brutality – how hard that balance is to find
    Even with a nice shopping list of skills and a handy national blueprint of how they should be assigned, it’s just so difficult to get it all right on the paddock at once.

    Australia has battled with this for a number of years, unable to get the right mix of players on the field at the right time. Until recent events, the lack of go forward was evident. Balancing attributes around the park with set-piece production was a never ending saga. Dean Mumm got selected. It was a shocker all over the show.

    New Zealand had similar trouble with the steady but unspectacular trio of Randall, Blowers and Kronfeld in the late 90s and just look at how that worked out.

    Basically, there are times when it just seems impossible to get it right and when that happens you have to compromise. Take the current Wallaby situation. Finally selection seems to have settled on Michael Hooper, David Pocock and Lopeti Timani. This is probably as good a selection as is available and it loosely follows the traditional Australian model though with some roles adjusted.

    The usual flyer has traded the role of the fetcher to the worker. The worker has transferred being a lineout target to the basher. The basher has become less of an avenue to stage a breakout attack from, that moving to flyer.

    It’s not perfect. Neither Pocock nor Hooper are lineout targets and just generally there is a lack of power that is not quite made up for by Hooper’s express pace.

    But otherwise it’s very good and with a player like Sean McMahon on the bench it seems Australia has finally come out of the woods.

    New Zealand has an entirely different issue. There are no shortage of backrowers and the traditional makeup has served them well. However they are now faced with a player who doesn’t fit their mould in Ardie Savea. A genuine game breaker, he is difficult to leave out and many have called for him to take the No.7 jersey from Sam Cane. But this devalues the work a player like Sam Cane, or his alternate Matt Todd, provides. Sure Ardie can break the line, but Kieran Read is already doing that. Yes he can put on a great hit but Jerome Kaino does it better. Yes he is as fast as a back but he plays like a centre not a link man. And so for all his obvious upside he is on the bench, providing impact while Sam Cane and Matt Todd go about their work.

    Other nations have their problems. South Africa without Duane Vermuelan lacks punch. England can’t seem to work out what it wants from an openside. Ireland doesn’t seem to even want an openside. France haven’t worked out how to replace the Dark Destroyer (I want to point out that while I earlier stated that a player can’t be have a high work rate and be a dominant tackler, the island teams have a nasty habit of ignoring balance all together and selecting three Kiwi-style smashing blindsides in all three positions).

    I will go on the record and say the the most complete backrow of all time was Kaino, McCaw and Read. I’m sure there has never been a trio of players with such complimentary skillsets, playing at such a high level at the same time. There was not one element of backrow play missing, maintaining a balance across the paddock.

    Hopefully this piece has set the scene around the backrow and just how difficult it is to achieve loose forward Nirvana.

    What do you think Roarers, is it as hard as I say it is? Is there an element of backrow play that you feel is glaringly omitted? Who would be your ultimate backrow?

    Next time – A shorter project on how Locks are finally having their day in the sun and are the most important players on the field.

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    The Crowd Says (22)

    • November 17th 2016 @ 4:55am
      Kevin Sutton said | November 17th 2016 @ 4:55am | ! Report

      The English world cup winning Dalilylalilollio/back/Hill was a great example of the balanced back row, only losing out to the kiwi one with a bit of lineout threat, Dalilylalilollio was good, hill passable, but back was an evil dwarf!

      • Roar Pro

        November 17th 2016 @ 10:04am
        PapanuiPirate said | November 17th 2016 @ 10:04am | ! Report

        All ruck, tackle and mongrel players. Never rated that backrow for link play or subtlety but fantastic defensively. Was Neil Back the last small 7 in world rugby?

        • November 17th 2016 @ 2:53pm
          cuw said | November 17th 2016 @ 2:53pm | ! Report

          nope i believe Steffon armitage is shorter but much heavier. he did play for England tho a handful of caps.

          one would say Hooper is a small flank compared to the competition. ::)

          Back was used as the quicker flank , when the other 2 were big and slow ( comparatively) in an era when the players themselves were no as big as they are today and collision was second to speed.

          there was one study in |England that showed how much the proportions of players has grown since the game went professional.

          even the great Michael Jones was not a huge guy. Mccaw would look like Hulk next to him 😀

    • November 17th 2016 @ 6:41am
      Dingleberry Hufflethwaite III said | November 17th 2016 @ 6:41am | ! Report

      Great piece! Congratulations on the article. I found it very informative and enjoyable. Well done.

      • Roar Pro

        November 17th 2016 @ 8:29am
        PapanuiPirate said | November 17th 2016 @ 8:29am | ! Report

        Thanks very much DHIII, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    • Roar Guru

      November 17th 2016 @ 6:59am
      Carlos the Argie said | November 17th 2016 @ 6:59am | ! Report

      Well done. When I was a little boy, they started me on the backs. First as full back and then as center or wing. But I always wanted to be a backrower. For me the backrower was involved in all aspects of the game. He was on the ball all the time.

      I was eventually allowed to play number 8 and was pretty good at it. I even made it to a U-17 selection for Buenos Aires. I had some assets. I was fast, knew the game, I worked hard and was very obedient (coachable), and my skills were considered great for the day. But I missed a few details. I don’t have this power that comes from the inside, that destruction gene that runs over everything. And I discovered that I didn’t have that ultimate bravery required for the position, nor the physical presence. That was the limit of my level.

      But backrower play is still in my soul. They still are my favorites in every team and the ones I observe first when watching a game.

      Thanks again for this!

      • Roar Pro

        November 17th 2016 @ 8:37am
        PapanuiPirate said | November 17th 2016 @ 8:37am | ! Report

        Thanks very much for sharing your experiences Carlos!

        In my time coaching I always found it difficult to select a backrow and often opted for players similar to your description of yourself.

        I’ve always said you need three things to be right to play your best: your body, your head and your heart. It’s so tough to get all three aligned with your playing position and it’s where a lot of excellent rugby players struggle to make the step up.

        • Roar Guru

          November 17th 2016 @ 8:52am
          Carlos the Argie said | November 17th 2016 @ 8:52am | ! Report

          For a long time, it was hard for me to accept that players who were less talented but had that inner power and mongrel would be chosen ahead of me.

          It was only when I saw my son play rugby, and he did not have a lot of talent, but was inherently strong, a beast, that I realized the issue. I would always tell him how jealous (in a positive way) I was at his special talent.

          • Roar Pro

            November 17th 2016 @ 9:01am
            PapanuiPirate said | November 17th 2016 @ 9:01am | ! Report

            The battle between skill and talent has waged for generations. Talent normally wins out because a talented player can be trained skills whereas a skillful player is unlikely to unlock an unknown talent.

            On a different note, I have not included Argentina in my list of backrow styles and you might be able to fill in the blanks! I struggled to find a consistent line of selection from Argentina. It always just seemed that the Pumas just selected the hardest work, most passionate guys in the team at or over 6 foot and threw them in there…

      • November 17th 2016 @ 3:12pm
        cuw said | November 17th 2016 @ 3:12pm | ! Report

        @ Carlos the Argie

        u remind me of two guys who played rugger at school and university level in my country.

        at school level, there was this guy who happened to be a son of a pacific island father ( was it PNG) and Sri lankan mother playing for our rival school. he was very Jonah Lomu’esque – 6′ 4″ , 120kg. there was no one of such size in any school ( or even club i think) just standing , let alone playing rugger. but despite the size he played on a wing , rather than as a forward. rumor was that he did not like contact.

        at uni , there was a similar guy – 6′ 2″ , 110kg who was a national level shot-putter. the guys playing rugger thought he would be a nice addition to the team given the guy’s size and build ( he was ripped rather than fat). again , he did not want to play 8 , or even the forwards. somehow it did not work out and he gave up rugger.

        there is a saying : its not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog. that is true for forwards and especially the 3rd rowers, who take a lot of pleasure in crashing into people. 😀

    • November 17th 2016 @ 10:33am
      Bfc said | November 17th 2016 @ 10:33am | ! Report

      Bloody good PP…!
      That Brooke-Jones-Shelford back row was something else…and I think Jones was the greatest.
      In the amateur era, the Wallabies had Cornelsen/Shaw/Loane…legends north of the Tweed River. Though I was very young and the glasses might be blurred by time.
      George Smith gets the lollies for having the best all-round skill sets of any Wallaby…could have been a great scrumhalf…

      • Roar Guru

        November 19th 2016 @ 10:21am
        stillmissit said | November 19th 2016 @ 10:21am | ! Report

        Bfc: Loane was the best #8 I had seen until Read showed up. But for guts, speed, skil and devastation Loane was the one for so long. Great captain as well.

    • November 17th 2016 @ 11:59am
      PiratesRugby said | November 17th 2016 @ 11:59am | ! Report

      Thanks PapanuiPirate. At the moment the Kiwis seem to have locked down a winning backrow formula. I get the impression that the Wallabies are forever fiddling about. I’d love to see a few games of Fardy, Pocock and Timani at 6, 7, and 8. I think that Hooper throws the backrow out of balance. He can’t be dropped because he always puts in 80 minutes, he clicks over the stats, and lets face it, he’s from NSW. He seems to get knocked off the ruck far too easily. He’s not exactly a seagull, to be fair, but he spends a lot of time in the back line. For a forward he has good backline skills. But he’s not a back. And we seem to have lots of those. He’s not a dud like Foley or Skelton, but we’ve got a better 7 already with Pocock. Whittaker was great scrum half. But he was not as good as Gregan. Hooper is a tremendous player but Pocock is better.

      • Roar Pro

        November 17th 2016 @ 1:13pm
        PapanuiPirate said | November 17th 2016 @ 1:13pm | ! Report

        Australia are in an interesting position right now. I understand why they have gone with Hooper, he brings a fantastic skill set and is a the consummate 80 minute player. He only really lacks size and impact at the rusk which, while being fairly common in your flankers these days, aren’t mandatory if they can be gained effectively elsewhere.

        I’m not sure Fardy brings enough when he is on to counter what you lose dropping Hooper. He is another lineout target (though his production in that area has tailed off since he moved out of the second Row in Canberra) are does a lot of work but Pocock provides a lot of that work rate. I think having two workers and very little dynamism (Timani is a great carrier but I wouldn’t say he was dynamic) is a net loss. Sean McMahon on the other hand brings that sharper physical presence while maintaining a pretty active playstyle. He is probably the one pushing Hooper most at the moment. Pocock is basically a lock in for his breakdown and tackle work. Also seen a bit more link play from him recently which he executes well.

        • Roar Guru

          November 17th 2016 @ 6:17pm
          Fionn said | November 17th 2016 @ 6:17pm | ! Report

          I don’t know, mate, I think that flashiness and being dynamic is all well and good, but you need to do the basics well.

          I don’t mean to criticise Hooper, he is a very, very good player (although I think that McMahon may eventually end up surpassing him, by playing a similar role, only with more power), but the fact remains that, because of his size and weight, he isn’t a physical enough presence in the rucks, and he isn’t a line-out target and nor is he great over the ball.

          Fardy is a line-out target, is good over the ball and is very good at rucking (except he gives away too many penalties). I think a 6, 7, 8 of Fardy, Pocock and Timani would do all the basics right and would be the most balanced combination. With Hooper (or McMahon) coming in at around the 60 min mark.

          That said, there is much more to being an openside flanker than just stealing the ball. When asked about what he thinks the most important attributes of a 7 is, Australia’s greatest ever flanker George Smith said: ‘your ball skills, your ability to link up with the backs and forwards and have hand skills’ (

          As much as I love Pocock and still think he is the pick at 7, I wish he possessed a few more varied skills than he does.

          It’s almost like Hooper and Pocock both possess half of Smith’s abilities. Shame neither has the all-round abilities. Hopefully Gill returns soon? Imagine if Gill had stayed at the Reds and Smith had still returned and he had had the opportunity to learn under Smith *sigh*.

          Agree with your evaluations of Hooper, Skelton and Foley, PiratesRugby.

        • November 17th 2016 @ 6:48pm
          Scott said | November 17th 2016 @ 6:48pm | ! Report

          Very informative article PP, thank you.

          I have also noted Pocock has improved his link work, while not detracting from his other skills.

        • Roar Guru

          November 19th 2016 @ 10:30am
          stillmissit said | November 19th 2016 @ 10:30am | ! Report

          PapanuiPirate: One of the best articles I have read on the roar for a long time. All forwards secretly want to play in the backrow. I certainly did fancy myself at #8 but always got #5 stuck on my back due to being taller than anyone else.

          I think the loss of Hooper’s workrate and impact will be shown for + or – tomorrow morning. I am a bit excited by Pocock 7, McMahon 8 and Fardy 6. I think they are a better balance. Then TImani can come on for McMahon and Mumm’s boy for Fardy.

          What are your thoughts on Mumm?

    • Roar Guru

      November 17th 2016 @ 6:18pm
      Fionn said | November 17th 2016 @ 6:18pm | ! Report

      Excellent article, PapanuiPirate. Extremely interesting to read.