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As we all know, rugby royalty lives in the back row and the June Tests are set up for a look at the best in the game under the new laws and with a variety of challenging situations for most sides.
I write this without the knowledge of all the selections for this weekend’s game’s but the big issues are likely to remain.
For we antipodeans, a first up-close look at new Irish wunderkind Dan Leavy is in the offing, Brad Shields parachutes in to try to stop an English loose forward trio in freefall, Siya Kolisi begins his welcomed captaincy reign, the French are without impressive Yacouba Camara, New Zealand remain Read-less and Australia will attempt to get Pooper to make six plus seven to add up to fourteen and not twelve.
The application of the breakdown laws have, to date, provided something of a barbell picture in their application, on occasion up north we have seen the contest at the breakdown all but disappear, while in the southern hemisphere the application of the new law as written seems to have bypassed most of the officials completely.
Expect to see World Rugby use these June Tests as the platform for the real launch of how they want this new law officiated. I heard a recent interview with Nigel Owens where he stated that at the latest international referee get-together in Australia, they were discussing what now constitutes a ruck.
And so the conjecture about the skill-set of the modern openside will have some light shined upon it. Will the seven be a hybrid 6.5, can a smaller faster player make the bigger impact, is the legs tackle back, or will the blend of the back-row three be the magic outcome?
For me, one of the most complete openside performances in recent years slipped quietly into the history books almost unanalysed as the end-of-year-tour matches petered out to a somewhat tired close, but Sam Cane’s outing for the All Blacks against Wales last year is well worth a review.
In a match where New Zealand were restricted to 36 per cent possession and 33 per cent territory, Cane produced a performance of high impact across many of the key skill areas.
25 tackles for two misses, six passes, seven runs for 18 metres sounds a decent return for any loosie but it is the impact of his involvements that is most impressive. Worth noting is the number of times Cane gets multiple involvements in the same phase.
1. Openside flankers need to be tackling opposition backs
For so many reasons this is a core skill of the modern seven. Getting off the openside from rucks and set piece and knocking over the quicker opposition players not only protects your own inside back tacklers but also stops attacks before they get started. Lateral foot speed is a key attribute.
2. Tackling at the gain-line
Lose the gain-line, lose the match – not an absolute but a pretty good rule.
Ball runners need to be knocked over on the spot, as this allows your own side to constantly move forward into contact and not retreat to reload through the gate.
3. The turnover tackle
Being able to hit hard enough to jolt the ball free or put pressure on so the runner the ball goes loose is a bonus in a world where possession is increasingly hard to get back.
4. Impact at rucks
There is no greater waste of energy than arriving at the ruck just in time to lean on the back before following the ball and repeating the same thing at the next ruck. Loosies need to pick their moments and when they arrive at a ruck, opposition bodies need to be moved.
5. Quality hands
Almost a given now, but being to execute handling skills under pressure and seamlessly move the ball is a prerequisite for the modern openside. A lack of possession in this game restricted Cane’s involvement somewhat but what he did was well executed, as his passes from halfback demonstrate.
His best involvement in this game was as a link in a right-side attack in the second half but for some reason, I cannot cut this from the footage – my apologies.
The modern seven must be an offensive threat.
If anyone can explain to me how Reiko Ioane walked off with the man of the match award in this game after watching these outtakes, it would be appreciated.
The coming June series will provide us all with a good look at a real selection of world-class loosies and opensides over the coming months, and I hope these criteria included here provide some basis for assessment.
Bring the Tests on!