The ever changing laws of rugby football mean that the role of the seven is also always on the move. Over 45 years ago the new laws requiring that the backs stand ten yards from the lineout and delaying the back row’s scrum detachment limited the pressure the flanker could put on the opposition half-backs. The ‘fliers’ were no longer so effective.
In recent years, ‘the McCaw era’ if you like, the laws have changed continually around the breakdown and sometimes that has been just from match to match. In last season’s Grand Slam decider the Welsh forwards deliberately gave up trying to contest for possession at the ruck and maul because Steve Walsh was not allowing it.
This all comes down to the flanker’s greatest asset. It is not speed or strength or stamina. It is what goes on between the ears. McCaw always keeps his feet moving even if he is almost stationary as a way of staying sharp. The former Wales and Lions flanker John Taylor said a flanker’s most important ability was “to make the right decision at the right time.”
So when we look at Sam Cane and Pablo Matera last weekend, a 21-year-old and a 20-year-old respectively, it is important to remember that they have much to learn. Both are wonderful athletes. Both have a ton of ability. Both have to work on game understanding.
It helps Cane’s cause to have Richie McCaw acting as a water carrier. It also helps that his coach at the Chiefs is a former back row man. Matera has Fernandez-Lobbe on the other side of the scrum, advising as he goes along.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that so many flankers are turning into captains these days. McCaw, Thierry Dusautoir, Sam Warburton, George Robson, Kelly Brown, David Pocock, Fernandez-Lobbe. Yes, rugby has always been a slave to fashion, but flankers are always thinking on their feet and they need to be able to influence refs that they are on the right side of the law.
But what is a flanker’s most important role? Is it tackling, clearing rucks, pressurising the ball carrier, support play, running with the ball, turning over possession? Does he have to be a master of all trades? Or does it depend on how your side is going to play?
On the hard grounds of South Africa the ball pops up a lot and so their flankers have traditionally been great ball carriers. On the wetter grounds of Britain there are usually more breakdowns in play and so flankers have often been “trained hunters” in the words of Taylor, scavengers, jackals, destroyers more than creators. On the harder grounds in the South of France the animal changes again.
My idea of the perfect flanker is still Michael Jones in his youth, before the knee injuries slowed him down, with that blazing speed and huge upper body strength, the ultimate hunter gatherer. Coach John Hart called him the “almost perfect rugby player.”
I see some of Jones’s talent in young Matera. But what aspect of a flanker’s art do you think is most important if Matera is to take his game to the next level?