ELCOME in from the cold. As a former card-paying member, I’m thrilled to see the value of the second row forward soar to top of the class in the modern game. Any side with serious aspirations of winning the 2015 World Cup will require at least one dominant, worldclass, presence locking the middle row of the scrum.
No longer the piano shifter, the giants of the modern game have not only been elevated to the role of orchestral concertmaster, they are vying for the conductors baton with the pretty boys at half-back.
Last season’s IRB player of the year was New Zealand’s dynamic second row sensation, Brodie Retallick. Six nations player of the year, IRUPA player’s player of the year and the Guinness Irish Rugby Writers player of the year? Paul O Connell. His female counterpart in this country was the excellent Sophie Spence. Yes, you’ve guessed it, she manned the second row for the triumphant Six Nations women’s team.
So what has changed? What has happened to highlight the overall contribution the second row brings to the party? For a start, the role of the modern day lock demands a far wider skill set to that of his amateur counterpart. The job description has been widened to the point where a very high degree of competency is required in all aspects of the game.
Not so long ago, the basic duties were often shared between the two locks in that one was primarily a more athletic type, the primary ball winner out of touch and restarts and generally more comfortable with ball in hand.
The other was more of a bruiser, operating behind the tight head prop to help anchor the scrum and whose main function was to hit rucks and mauls, effect the odd carry and generally to make a nuisance of himself. Some were so awkward, they posed as much danger to their own players as the opposition. Making tackles was way down the priority list.
Retallick is the embodiment of the new breed. Big and strong without carrying any great bulk, he ticks all the boxes. His three main roles haven’t changed appreciably from the time I played in that the scrum, line out and restarts remain the areas he is required to excel in. The NewZealander does that with his work out of touch on both his and the opposition’s throw top drawer.
The advent of lifting in the lineout transformed what, most of the time, was a dockyard brawl in that the more athletic jumper is now offered all the advantages. That wasn’t always the case with opposition able to get away with murder to prevent the good jumper winning clean ball. Time and again you were faced with a scenario where the opposition had their men standing in front and behind you, taking you out before you ever got near the ball.
Sometimes they would have a player stepping across while you were airborne, attempting to take the legs from under you. It was a battleground. You had to find the space early and get in the air to highlight any interference to the officials.
The modern jumper is offered far more protection to the point where, even if his arm is interfered with in any way, it’s a penalty. That said, given that you have a pod with two lifters and the jumper working in tandem, three people need to be aligned and tuned into getting the manoeuvre right.
Speed across the ground and in the air is still crucial and it is a more co-ordinated skill. The fact that the jumper is allowed hang in the air that little bit longer also makes the margin of error for the thrower that bit wider.
The other big difference is you are not under as much pressure or focus on the opposition throw as their jumper is expected to win most of his ball. It’s a bit like a goalkeeper in a penalty shoot-out, the pressure is on the taker. As a jumper, if you manage to pilfer a couple of opposition throws, it’s a good days work.
he big change for the modern day lock is in his workload outside of the set piece. As a collective, the tight five have a big job to do in terms of establishing a physical dominance and a responsibility to put the team on the front foot. Delivering quality ball while the opposition defensive line is on the retreat is invaluable and buys precious seconds for the attack.
Given that phase play is now so structured, the second row now has predetermined roles and lines to run that present opportunities with ball in hand. While I was always felt comfortable in such situations, I can think of several locking partners who were quite happy to go through a game without the responsibility of carrying or passing. Nowadays it is a primary requirement.Paul O’Connell summed up the changes before his last outing in a green jersey on home soil against Wales when comparing how the job had evolved even since his first cap against the same opposition in 2002.
“Back then after you won a lineout or a scrum, all bets were off and it was play away and do what you like. Rugby has become much more structured. Defensively it was poles apart. Mike Ford came in for his first week with the squad and he was like a rocket scientist to us in terms of what he wanted us to do defensively.”
With most teams operating off a play-sheet that identifies an individual’s role over the ensuing three or four phases of play, the second row pairing are required to work in tandem. Off scrums, the lock on the open side may be required to carry in tight with the other tasked with getting into the midfield, where he will work in unison with the two props to either carry or clean out.
Where the likes Retallick, Victor Matfield and Alun-Wyn Jones excel is that, not only are they very comfortable with ball in hand, they invariably makes the right decision, under pressure, whether to pass, carry or run a dummy line. In fact the big competitive advantage that New Zealand carry into this World Cup is that all of their front five forwards have that ability.
In their playbook, the off load is something every forward, especially the two second rows given they are two of the main ball carriers, have to be able to perfect. Conversely Joe Schmidt discourages the off load, with a greater emphasis put on retaining possession and building the phase play.
Perhaps he feels our forwards don’t yet possess the skill levels to execute under pressure and is therefore reducing the margin for error by having a clearly defined policy. If so, then that is a significant part of the coaches’ brief. Players like and welcome clarity. Joe definitely provides that.
The most effective of the modern day second rows offer what I call “the Dana factor”. They must provide all kinds of everything. The teams that have at least one of those in their ranks will make the biggest impact at this tournament. To win the tournament outright it is an absolute necessity.
The thing I admire most about O’Connell is he has adapted and added to his game over the last decade to remain at the top of his trade. Players don’t normally improve after they have reached their 32nd birthday but in terms of carrying, passing and competing at the breakdown, the Irish captain is even more effective now than at any time in his illustrious career. That makes him special.
The fact Matfield, at 38 years of age, can still compete with the very best after a two-year, self- imposed, absence from the game says everything about his athletic prowess. Alun-Wyn Jones is another who contributes so much over and above the basic requirements of his position that it offers Wales a real chance of emerging from their pool of death. Is it any wonder Warren Gatland is sweating at present over the medial ligament injury he picked up in Dublin.
In addition to the market leaders in Retallick, O’Connell, Matfield and Jones, there is a brood of highly talented, young locks participating in this World Cup who have the capacity to elevate the role to even higher levels over the next few years.
In that context, I am really looking forward to marking the contributions of such talented athletes as Scotland’s Jonny Gray, Courtney Lawes of England and Leone Nakarawa of Glasgow Warriors and Fiji over the next seven weeks.
Supporting the veteran Matfield, South Africa have two of the best young locks in the game in Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager while we are also extremely well served in terms of support for O’Connell in the rapidly developing Iain Henderson, the highly dependable Devin Toner and the returning Donnacha Ryan. That quartet put us in a strong competitive position.
If it’s the beastly, wrecking ball variety of second row that turns your fancy then look no further than Australia’s 140kg behemoth Will Skelton. Matfield did the trade proud when named player of the tournament in France in 2007. What odds on another towering second row bagging that accolade this time out?