ANALYSIS: What makes the perfect openside flank?
OPINION: The latest in Alex Shaw’s series looking at the make-up of the perfect rugby player shines a spotlight on the openside flank position.
The openside flank is seemingly more glamorous of the two flank positions.
Whilst the blindside tends to be burdened with more onerous defensive duties, opensides are frequently tasked with more eye-catching roles in attack, as well as being required to create the defensive turnovers that can create moments of attack in transition.
Playing two opensides in the same back row has been an en vogue trend in recent seasons, with Australia, England and even New Zealand experimenting with loose forward compositions in that mould. Below we identify the five key attributes to the position and why having multiple players who can provide them is such an enticing option for teams.
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At the core of an openside’s responsibilities is the requirement that they positively influence defensive breakdowns as a jackal and attacking breakdowns as a clearer. They, above all others in the pack, are expected to dominate in this area and provide quick, clean ball going forward, and attacking opportunities through turnovers.
Over the past decade, no one has managed to surpass Australia’s David Pocock in this facet of the game, with the veteran Wallaby having been a thorn in the side of every team he has come up against. His desire to win ball at the breakdown has left his body battered on the pitch, and none can question his commitment, physical strength or refined technique.
Opensides are often praised as link men, too, who are able to join the backline and perform comfortably as a ball-carrier and playmaker amongst those traditionally more skilful ball-handlers. It is not uncommon to see opensides marauding down the wing and being able to make accurate passes at speed and carry through one-on-one tackles allows them to be more successful in this role.
In the modern game, few would question Fiji’s Peceli Yato in this area, with the Islander one of the most destructive ball-carriers in the game after breaking the first tackle. He employs Fiji’s trademark comfort with the offloads and combines it with an ability to drive through tackles and draw defenders and make the killer pass.
Something which goes hand in hand with both the breakdown influence and the ball-handling as a link man, is the mobility that opensides are required to have. In order to make it from breakdown to breakdown and to keep pace with the backs and support their attacks, a flank needs to have the acceleration and top-end speed that is not necessarily required elsewhere in the pack.
As mobile options go, you will struggle to find a fleeter seven than Australia’s Michael Hooper. The 28-year-old already has 99 Wallaby caps to his name and not only is that an endorsement of the special level of pace he has that has made him so integral to multiple coaches’ plans, but also his durability. In an area of behemoth forwards, Hooper has flourished as a smaller openside.
Away from the glamour of stealing turnovers and springing attacking opportunities, opensides also tend to be among the very best tacklers in any XV. Given that they make their money at the breakdown, they tend to be very good at making dominant one-on-one tackles that allow them to spring back to their feet and be in an advantageous position to then go to work at the contact area.
As far as the modern game goes, there aren’t too many equals to England’s Sam Underhill in this area. The Bath flanker tackles with a relentless physicality that often makes people overlook his considerable ability at the breakdown. By tying him in alongside another effective breakdown operator like Tom Curry, England were able to have plenty of success as their predatory pack feasted off of the dominant tackles that Underhill made at the Rugby World Cup.
Away from all the physical and technical demands at the position, openside flanks also need to display a great awareness and ability to read the flow of a game. Making a judgement call on staying out of a tackle can lead to a prime opportunity to shoot in as a jackal, whilst a strong reading of the game will allow flanks to assess when opposition numbers will be short on a particular phase and the opportunity to disrupt or turnover ball is increased.
These cerebral opensides don’t come along every day, but Wales’ Justin Tipuric ticks all the boxes and it’s because of that component in his game that his technical and physical skills are allowed to flourish. It’s not just at the breakdown, either, with Tipuric’s decision-making in attack also excellent, something which stems back to his appreciation and reading of the game.
Breakdown – David Pocock
Ball-handling – Peceli Yato
Mobility – Michael Hooper
Tackling – Sam Underhill
Game reading – Justin Tipuric
By Alex Shaw, @RugbyPass