England manufacturing their own Pieter-Steph du Toit
OPINION: You would struggle to find too many individual campaigns that top that of the one turned in by Pieter-Steph du Toit last year, as the gifted blindside flank set new standards at his position.
The Springbok was named World Rugby Player of the Year in 2019, in the wake of his nation lifting the Rugby World Cup for the third time and his wonderfully complimentary performances alongside talismanic captain, Siya Kolisi.
Despite the trend of playing with two more mobile and defensive breakdown-oriented flanks in recent years, with the Australian combination of Michael Hooper and David Pocock and the English duo of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill chief among the impressive proponents, du Toit and South Africa went back to basics and it is something which paid off for both the individual and the team.
Beyond his strong all-round skill set, perhaps the areas where du Toit most impressively singled himself out last year were with the physicality he brought on both sides of the ball, his ability to clear out aggressively and accurately at the breakdown and his presence as a lineout option. In those facets, du Toit was as good, if not better than anyone else at his position.
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There are not many players with du Toit’s ability in world rugby, though he has become a torchbearer for the more traditional blindside flank, whose value in international rugby seems to currently be trending up. You need to look no further than the impact Courtney Lawes has brought to the role for England in recent seasons to see a homegrown example of this.
Even for Eddie Jones and England, whose array of openside flanker options seems to be overflowing, with Curry and Underhill joined by the likes of Ben Earl, Jack Willis, Lewis Ludlam and now a rumoured call-up for former Wales U20 captain Tommy Reffell, the temptation to go down the size route at six is surely a tempting one.
In addition to Lawes, whose displays on the flank in recent years have been highly impressive, both Nick Isiekwe and Ted Hill have been championed as contenders for this spot moving forward.
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Isiekwe has been shining at Saracens for multiple seasons now, though it was his man of the match-winning performance on debut for Northampton Saints, away from the strength of his Saracens’ teammates, that has particularly caught the eye of late. As for Hill, he has seemed to take to captaincy at Worcester Warriors like a duck to water and has continued to maintain his lofty standards of performance, irrespective of the expectations now on him as a leader.
At 22 and 21 respectively, Isiekwe and Hill have plenty of time on their sides and both have already made their international debuts for England. The higher they take their games, the harder pressed Jones will be to more regularly adopt a traditional and physical blindside, over the mobility and fetching skill that opting for the ‘Kamikaze Kids’ combination that served him so well at the Rugby World Cup in Japan would provide.
The well is far from dry beneath that, too, something which is being exposed as a much-needed silver lining by the recent Coronavirus outbreak and its subsequent impact on professional rugby.
The 19-year-old George Martin was excellent for Leicester Tigers in their home loss to Bath, exhibiting all of the work rate and physical presence that had become synonymous with Leicester forwards during the club’s heyday. He packed down on the blindside in that game, though he is more than comfortable stepping into the row, a position he played throughout his U18 seasons with the Tigers academy.
At London Irish, Ben Donnell has begun to come to the fore, with Adam Coleman continuing to rehab from injury in Australia, and the academy product has looked comfortable at lock, despite Irish’s post-pandemic struggles. He could well be seen as difference-maker at blindside moving forward, especially with Chunya Munga beginning to emerge at Hazelwood and arguably possessing the more natural frame for a second row.
Both Martin and Donnell are benefitting from the short turnarounds between games that are forcing Premiership sides to use the entirety of their squads and though the quality of games is being affected as a result of this heavy rotation, these are experiences which will be critical to their development during these formative years of their professional careers.
All four have the versatility to switch between lock and blindside, something which they will hope provides them with an ace up their sleeves when they attempt to crack Jones’ fiercely contested group of second and back rows.
George Kruis’ departure for Japan creates a potential short-term opening, whilst Lawes is set to turn 32 next season and there will be attention focused on whether or not there is any of the physical decline that inevitably comes to all players. Given the strength of the second row unit in particular over the past five or so years, this seems as good a time as any to be pushing for England involvement at the position.
As for the back row resources, that’s going to be a tougher sell. The cadre of openside options mentioned earlier are all in the early stages of their careers, with none yet even having approached what would traditionally be considered their ‘primes’. If these blindsides are to successfully make the case for the balance they would provide in that loose forward trio, they are going to have to do it by outplaying their vaunted, fleeter and smaller back row colleagues.
There has understandably been a lot made of that impressive depth at seven, especially when compared to a dearth of options in that traditional mould in years gone by, though that should not diminish what is rapidly becoming a rather impressive array of talent at blindside, too.
Isiekwe and Hill are among the hottest properties in English rugby, whilst Martin is beginning to prosper in the East Midlands and Irish will be hoping that Donnell’s performances are not attracting too much attention from their Premiership rivals. For those with their eyes on a succession plan beyond that, you need look no further than recent schoolboys Ewan Richards at Bath and Kayde Sylvester at Northampton, or Saracens U18 prospect and Felsted pupil Obinna Nkwocha.
With English schools and academies producing these versatile forwards at a fair clip, England fans should be wary about diving too deeply into the pool of opensides, with the Springboks and du Toit having emphasised strongly the value of having a true blindside in a balanced back row.
One thing is for certain, though, and that is that England have not had such a deep and talented pool of flankers to pick from in many years.
By Alex Shaw, Rugbypass