How important is a ‘genuine’ open-side?


Much is made these days of the need for a ‘genuine’ no.7, someone in the mould of Australia’s David Pocock or Michael Hooper, whose primary focus is to win turnovers and disrupt opposition ball at the breakdown. We’ve taken a look at some data provided by Accenture to see how the current Northern Hemisphere open-sides are shaping up in the Six Nations.

Looking at Chris Robshaw and Sean O’Brien, in many facets the stats suggest they have been quite similar so far. In the two rounds of the 6 Nations to date, they have made 67 and 59 metres respectively – although the fact that Robshaw has actually made slightly more is surprising. Sean O’Brien is known for his carrying ability, consistently breaking tackles and making more obvious yardage. This stat is a testament, then, to the hard work that Robshaw does in the open spaces and as first receiver, where he often makes ground before passing.

robshaw o'brien

This is backed up by the fairly astonishing statistic that Robshaw has made 17 passes to O’Brien’s three. The use of forwards as link men, and making sure they have the ability to be comfortable with the ball, is a hallmark of Lancaster’s playing style, and something that New Zealand have done consistently well over the years. Interestingly, the open-side with the next highest number of passes is Sam Warburton – in just one game. Make of that what you will.

When it comes to the breakdown, the stats are slightly more sobering. England have won seven turnovers of which Robshaw has won… one. Scotland have won 10 turnovers, with Kelly Brown contributing just two. Wales duo Warburton and Tipuric have won a grand total of zero between them, which is particularly surprising as they are probably the closest thing to a ‘fetcher’ that has has been on offer in the Six Nations.

As the famous saying goes, though, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. The men with 7 on their backs may not have been attributed with making many turnovers themselves, but there is more than one problem with taking that as read. Firstly, just because it didn’t go down as ‘their’ turnover, doesn’t mean they didn’t contribute. And secondly, for most of the players mentioned here their real value lies in other areas of the game. As we’ve already seen, Robshaw’s work-rate to get around the paddock and act as a link-man is invaluable. O’Brien’s barnstorming charges are vital to get Ireland on the front foot. Thierry Dusautoir is a leader of men (who shouldn’t be blamed for his team’s malaises) and gets through more tackles than most in a game. The same can be said of Kelly Brown.

The key word in all this is balance. What appears to be most important these days is having that balance across your back-row, or indeed across your whole team. Chris Robshaw may not have the breakdown abilities of a Pocock or McCaw, but in combination with Tom Wood and Ben Morgan, not to mention Dan Cole and Brad Barritt, England have a host of players capable of competing in the area. Likewise, Ireland’s Sean O’Brien can count on captain Jamie Heaslip and talisman Brian O’Driscoll to help him out.

The Northern Hemisphere’s open-side flankers may not be the best in the world at the breakdown, but they offer so much more than that. So while having a ‘fetcher’ in your team is undoubtedly a bonus, it is far from vital these days. If you want proof you need only look at England’s performance against New Zealand, when a back-row containing no genuine open-side dominated the best in the world in that position.

By Jamie Hosie

Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43

Accenture is working with the RBS 6 Nations to use technology to make the championship more interactive for fans by providing deeper insight into match data – follow @accenturerugby for all the latest stats and analysis.

41 thoughts on “How important is a ‘genuine’ open-side?

  1. Great read Jamie!
    Interesting to see Warburton and Tipuric the “fetchers” have no turnovers.
    Also, would you say Robshaws first receiver came through Lancaster or more from O’Shea at Quins?

      1. Probably true, but Robshaw wasn’t first choice when Deano was there (he was convinced Will Skinner was the top choice).

        And we only really see it in rush defences like when Quins play Leicester – to catch out Manu.
        Interestingly, I was surprised we didn’t see it more against SA last Summer

    1. Thanks Tom, and you make a good point. It may well have originated from Conor O’Shea but you still see it quite often for England, so Lancaster is obviously encouraging it.

  2. The slightly misleading thing about the turnovers won stat is that it doesn’t seem to include penalties won by forcing the tackled player into holding on, which can be more valuable than an actual turnover depending on the circumstances. In the summer Robshaw won a bunch of penalties at the breakdown in the first test, but if I remember correctly his stats still just said one or two turnovers. Same goes for Kelly Brown against England in this tournament.

  3. Really good article. Out of interest does anyone know has a 7 role always been a fetcher? Or is it because people who are a 7 (e.g. McCaw) were so exceptional in this area that it became an aspect of play that all 7s were supposed to excel at?

    My own opinion, for the first time in a decade England have moved the game on. The mobility and athleticism of the English pack (tight 5 especially) and the collective aggressive work at the breakdown makes the specific role of a fetcher redundant. One man can not get to every breakdown first and 2 or more vs 1 is never a fair fight. I have never seen McCaw blown out of the breakdown as he was against us.

    1. Matt, the 7 has always been expected to be the first forward away, and in the past the intent was generally to destroy the ball carrier in the opposition, so almost a first line of defence. In attack, they were a supplementary back.
      Thinking of Rives, Slattery, Neary, Mourie. Spurrell?
      There was a time when turnovers as we know them today did not exist because once the ball was on the ground, it became a ruck, and no hands were allowed in. If they were in the ruck, then they would get the Healy treatment.
      As the rules changed, players got fitter (and professional) and “groundwork” started becoming the job of an open-side, and whilst no-one could deny the quality of McCaw and the fact that he is one of the best ever, he certainly didn’t invent this role.
      Similar players, before McCaw, off the top of my head; Calder, Robinson, Back, Kronfeld, Williams, Betson and plenty of others that I have completely forgotten.

  4. Great article. Just a question – which, if any, website did you get those statistics from? It may be interesting to try and compare a number of other players as well..

    1. Mike, we actually got the stats straight from Accenture, who are doing them for the 6N… I’m not sure if it’d be possible for now to compare players on a broader scale. Which is a shame.

  5. It’s imperative to have a ‘true’ No. 7 but you also need a ‘true’ No. 6.
    Without Richard Hill England would not have won the World cup. It’s about balance and Sam is suffering at the moment as Lydiate is not there, ying & yang.

    1. And yet Hill and Dallalio also both started their careers as 7s? But you’re right balance in the back row is key. Rugby is so much morebthe sum of its parts than merely bringing talented individual players together.

      1. Glad you said this Benjit! Hill, Back and Dallaglio were so great because of the balance, not because of them being “the perfect 6,7 8”. In fact when they were first chosen as a backrow, many people raised an eyebrow because they thought it was a backrow of 3 flankers – 2 7’s (NB&RH) and a 6 (LD).

        You don’t need a specialist 7 or 6, you just need two players who work well together.

        Robshaw and Wood are actually the best foils for each other at the moment. Because many would see them both as 6.5s. A fair few turnovers/penalties were won by wood in the NZ game.

        Balance is the key to any good backrow. It’s the same for a 2nd row, you should have a lump, and an athlete, like bakkies Botha and matfield

  6. McCaw was knackered on Dec 1st, so that comparison provides little comfort for the Lions.

    As the article points out, there aren’t many ‘genuine open-sides’ playing in the 6N. It follows that the 6N won’t shed much light on how any of those currently wearing 7 might fare against Pocock and/or Hooper.

    Maybe Warburton or Tipuric will rediscover their mojo, and provide a meaningful yardstick for the prospects in Oz of any 6.5 who travels.

    If Gatland takes no specialist, it should only be out of an absence of any candidate, but don’t kid yourself that it’ll end well.

    1. Personally I’m not now convinced that a “true” 7 is essential as long as the backrow is set up right and the team contest the breakdown in the right way. So must disagree. I might be wrong but I think that the gap between NH and SH is closer than it has been for a while.

      1. Agree with you Staggy. A ‘true’ 7 is necessary if you have two big ball carriers in the rest of the back row who aren’t going to get stuck in at the breakdown, but, as with England and Wood, these days most teams have more than one player who can hold their own at the breakdown. Almost like employing two ‘6 and a halves’.

    2. This is so tedious. It was a long season for everybody. I don’t think McCaw expended that much energy against Wales so was probably mesh enough.

  7. Would have liked to have seen the figures for say two games that McCaw and Hooper played in the AI’s for comparison. Do you have access to that info?

    1. Accenture are just doing the stats for the 6N and the info came straight from them, so sadly we don’t have access to the stats for McCaw and Hooper in the autumn. Shame though as I agree, it would have been very interesting to see their figures.

  8. I think sides should play to their strengths. If you have a world class 7 then great but if not the right/left or 6.5 combo works well if the personell are hood enough. Personally I think Woods/ robshaw/ Morgan are a great combination and I don’t think Armitage or Kvesic would materially improve England’s play.

  9. Excellent article

    jit the nail on the head; the type of 7 one plays with depends on the style of play your team wants to execute and the abilities of the other players on the park. As you said the increased mobility and game awarness of the tight 5 has taken a lot of pressure off the backrow, when it comes to the breakdown.

    I love O’Brian and Robshaw, They could make a lions backrow, depending on the style of game the lions want to play.

    The fact remains that the faster and more open your style of game becomes, which it tends to become in the SH, your backrow would have to be faster and more mobile. Pockock and Hooper suit the Aussie style of play.

    England are playing fanstastic and I am not criticising their style, you play to your strengths, but they are not throwing the ball around as much as other teams.

    If England started going side to side like Aus, we would need a more mobile backrow. The challenge for people like O’brian, Robshaw, Brown, Dissetour ect is how they deal with a faster more open game, which is what the lions will face in the summer. Lets not forget what happened to the lions in SA and how a certain number 7 called henrick caused all sorts of problems.

    People also forget the 7’s role in being a support player and keepping the ball alive, this is a skill robshaw does have and credit to him, but he is not as on the spot as Pockock, or McCall just yet.

    Lets not forget that when England won the world cup the could retain possession forever and the was to no small part due to the greatest 7 we have produced Neil Back.

    1. Disagree with a few of your points Ronbraz.

      England “are not throwing the ball around as much as other teams” did you watch the Scotland game? They went more conservative vs Ireland but i think that was largely due to conditions.

      You assume that Aus are going to try and play a fast open game. Whilst this is historically true of Aus it is not true of Deans’s Australia over the last year. They have played a tight kicking game. They scored the fewest tries in the try nations of all the countries. This may change a bit when they get some injured players back.

      Pocock is not a particularly good link man at 7. He plays a power game. The Brumbies have specifically said they want to improve this side of his game as they feel it is lacking.

      “lets not forget”

      1. I do think the Aussie’s will open it up.

        I know pocock is not a good link man, I was talking about the openside position in general, and did mention Robshaws strength in this area, so I agree with you there.

        I was just trying to make the point that the breakdown is not the openside’s only role.

    2. Robshaw’s biggest asset is his incredible workrate. In offence he is always available, when you look at the stats almost every game, outside of the half backs, he is the player who has touched the ball the most (carries, passes, offloads) He makes a huge contribution to the fast paced high continuity Quins game. I don’t think there is any risk of Robshaw being off the pace Vs any opposition.

  10. Great Article!

    For me its all about how the team wants to play, and the required back row balance to make this work, even how the whole pack works as a unit at the breakdown. As previously mentioned Lydiates absence probably plays a big factor in the ability of either Welsh 7 to perform at their best.

    It also interesting to watch Dan Cole for England who is incredible for a prop at turnovers, i wonder how hard England work on getting him into those positions.

    For me Robshaw and Wood are a great unit on the flanks, with Morgan when fit combining to make a very effective back row.

    From a lions point of view the question is who out of the open sides will combine best with the other back rowers to create the best unit? given the candidates that’s one hell of a conundrum!

    1. completely agree with you in regards to wood and robshaw. those two are the perfect combination for each other.
      i think that if the lions want to do well, they should play wood and robshaw, or neither of them and go for something completely different.

      my view is that wood and robshaw are so fit and mobile that they are probably one of the main reasons for england’s recent success. as many have said before, it doesnt matter how good a 7 is, if people get there and smash him off the ball before he gets to it, there is nothing he can do. that is why wood and robshaw are so effective.

      i think those two have to be frontrunners for lions shirts, and SOB is definitely up there too. i think that SOB would be complimented quite nicely by a player like Kelly Brown, who goes about doing the less glamourous work, therefore giving SOB the chance to run and get the ball moving forward.

      the likes of Lydiate and Ferris are very destructive and clearly out and out 6’s. i would play these guys with people like Warburton or Tipuric (or rennie if fit).

      the lions backrow will be such an interesting area. i think the locks that are chosen will also effect which backrow is selected.

  11. I’m sorry, Ronbraz, but have you not seen how Quins have been playing these last couple of seasons? Of all the teams in the AP, and arguably in the NH, they are the ones that are most willing to play a fast paced, open game. Robshaw as the Captain is keey to the Quins team as a whole, and as #7 and quite often as a first receiver as well.

  12. The ‘out and out’ 7 nonsense was the fashionable gripe last year, and I think at last it’s proving to be utter rubbish. The more important point is balance as this article excellently illustrates – the game has moved on a lot since the days when just one player needed to be at every breakdown stealing the ball. Also, we’re allowed to have a different playing style in the Northern Hemisphere… Just because Richie McCaw and David Pocock do it, doesn’t mean we have to.

    Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw and Ben Morgan are a fantastic back row unit but the point is made by the fact that Dan Cole is as active as any of them in stealing the ball – welcome to 21st century rugby.

    Steffon who?

  13. Not sure how you get more mobile than Robshaw and Wood. both have incredible engines and never stop going.

    Quins play a fast,mobile game and it suits Robshaw down to the ground. They use him as first receiver a hell of a lot with runners playing off him and constantly looking for the off-load.

    England are starting to play the same way, which is good to see.

    As I’ve said before though, you can have the best open-side in the world and it will make no difference if the opposition gets to the breakdown in numbers and aggressively clears out. This is what the Kiwis have done so well for years. They don’t just flop over the ball at the ruck to protect it, but hit the ruck at speed and clear out any player near (and often not-so near) the ball giving them no chance to effect a turnover.

    Likewise when they don’t have the ball – despite McCaw’s prowess he is infinitely helped by NZ counter-rucking. There is very rarely a ruck that isn’t contested.

    England have started to play in the same way and with players like Robshaw, Wood, Cole, Parling and Barritt all contesting the ball, there is no need for a “specialist” 7

    BTW – interesting fact from last week’s Telegraph. Apparently the player with the most turnovers in the Premiership is Billy Twelvetrees!

    1. I noticed that too and did think it was odd that a centre had the most turnovers. Did you also see that he had one of the highest number of turnovers conceded as well? Bit of an odd one really.

  14. Just look a sam warburton, he has joined the team and wales won the grandslam and came 4th in the world cup! (this will tell how important they are)

    1. and yet cardiff didn’t do so much…

      the welsh success came down to lots of different factors fitting together at once, not just the presence of sam warburton.

      a backrow is about entirely about balance. wales did so well at that point because of the fantastic combination of warburton, lydiate and faletau. each bringing their own skills to the team.

      its why backrows like Heaslip, SOB and Ferris or Wood, Robshaw and Morgan work so well. neither of these two teams have what is seen as a “genuine 7” and yet they are extremely effective as a unit, because they compliment each other.

      1. It is no coincidence that warburton’s lack of form for Wales has occurred whilst Lydiate has been injured

        1. completely agree with you pablito.
          the balance and combinations of a backrow are the key. not an individual player being a “genuine” in his position.

          like i said in a post above, the combination of players can be the making of them. having seen how they play together, i would not want robshaw or wood running out for england without the other one (obviously excluding an injury) because they work so well together. if i was picking the lions team tomorrow, i would have both wood and robshaw, or neither of them.

          one player being a “genuine” in their position cannot be the sole reason for a team winning or losing, it is the form, combinations and the balance of the entire team that affects the result.

  15. I’ve actually just been looking at this issue in terms of a blog post I was going to do about the benefits of a genuine open side in lower level rugby.

    I’ll link to this article during it because I don’t think you could have analysed much better than you have.

    I’m a fan of proper open side flankers rather than the recessive wannabe number 8’s you can find at some clubs nowadays but that may be from the biased position of being an open side flanker myself!

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