Over the past few weeks, we have seen a number of exceptional performances from players we have come to term as ‘6.5s’, but what sets these players apart from their colleagues, who arguably fit the traditional six, seven, and eight stereotypes more accurately?
In the modern game of rugby, which has such a heavy focus on the battle at the breakdown, we have become well accustomed to the idealised roles that the particular members of the back row should play in regards to that area of the game. For example, if you were building a team from scratch, and looking for archetypal players to make up your back row unit, you would look for a work horse, tackling machine at six, a fleet jackal at seven, and a powerful ball-carrier at eight. These skills are obviously not mutually exclusive of their respective positions, and the players coined as ‘6.5s’ are the perfect example of this, but their versatility can be a double-edged sword, particularly if their all-round game impacts negatively on the primary reason for their selection, which in the case of ‘6.5s’ selected at openside flanker, is usually winning the battle of the breakdown.
So, with that in mind, what exactly makes a player a ‘6.5’?
Definitions will vary depending on who you ask, but they tend to be bigger, more powerful flankers, usually more suitable to the blindside, but who bring their power and work horse nature to the openside, sometimes, but not always, at the cost of their impact at the breakdown. Two prime examples are Ireland’s Sean O’Brien and England’s Chris Robshaw. Both players have impressed immensely in the QBE Internationals, Heineken Cup, and their respective domestic divisions, but neither is the jackal at seven that the Southern Hemisphere sides cherish. If you want to be pedantic, you could class O’Brien as a ‘6.75’ as he is probably more of a force at the breakdown than Robshaw is, but the Harlequins’ man is indisputably a ‘6.5’, and showed this with a team-high 43 tackles in England’s three games this November, whilst managing to only win one turnover. Other prominent examples would be Kelly Brown for Scotland, and Yannick Nyanga for Toulouse and France.
The next, and rather inevitable question, is can a team be successful with a ‘6.5’, especially when they are selected at seven, at the expense of traditional fetcher?
Few would argue against the fact that New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa have been the most successful international sides over the last decade, and all three play archetypal openside flankers in the seven jersey. Michael Hooper and David Pocock have been the recent sevens for the Wallabies, Francois Louw has now made the position his own for the Springboks (although in the six jersey, as is tradition with the Boks), whilst Richie McCaw has set new standards at the position for the All Blacks. Even in the Northern Hemisphere this trend continues, as Wales, the reigning Six Nations champions, have two very talented openside flankers in Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric, and England’s lone World Cup success was built firmly on the fetching skills of Neil Back, and his brilliantly balanced back row teammates of Richard Hill and Lawrence Dallaglio. Although the evidence seems fairly damning for ‘6.5s’, that is not to say that teams cannot have success with them in their sides.
The final question therefore, is how to best utilise these versatile players, and how they can have the biggest impact possible for their teams?
This is arguably not valid to Ireland, as O’Brien is verging on an out and out seven with his ability at the breakdown (as well as the fact there is no exceptionally talented fetcher in the Irish player pool), but the other mentioned sides need to think about moving these ‘6.5s’ to the blindside, where for my money, they can be superb blindside flankers, as opposed to being solid opensides. Steffon Armitage is currently in the form of his life for Toulon, playing like a one-man army at the breakdown, and would certainly add something to the England team that they’ve missed in recent years. This, of course, hinges upon Stuart Lancaster making an exception to his ‘no foreign-based players’ rule, something which seems unlikely at this point.
People will argue that England had success this autumn playing both Tom Wood and Robshaw, but their efforts at the breakdown were significantly bolstered by the tight five, where Dan Cole and Joe Launchbury in particular excelled, but relying on this to always be the case could be a risky move for England going forward. Scotland have a talented prospect in Chris Fusaro, whilst Bernard Le Roux could be a similar option for France, and committing to these players could, and perhaps should, be the way forward for the Northern Hemisphere sides. The subsequent reshuffling of their back rows could see players like Tom Wood and David Denton demoted to the bench, and although these are difficult decisions to make, they are ones which need to be made if they want to compete with the New Zealand and South Africa’s of the world.
To support this point, I look at the three standout back row units in world rugby; New Zealand, South Africa, and Wales. The All Blacks have a defined six, seven, and eight in Liam Messam, McCaw and Kieran Read respectively, as do the Boks in Willem Alberts, Louw, and Duane Vermuelen, whilst Wales’ unit of Dan Lydiate, Warburton (or Tipuric), and Toby Faletau is the best in the Northern Hemisphere. Cases could be made that all three sixes previously mentioned (Messam, Alberts, and Lydiate) are also ‘6.5s’ and do exceptional jobs as blindside flankers, but would look out of place in the seven jersey.
The rather longwinded moral of this story? These ‘6.5s’ are great assets to have, whether that is at six, or providing a valuable bench option due to their versatility, but not at the expense of a genuine seven, whether that be a current star waiting in the wings in Armitage, or real talents worth developing in Fusaro and Le Roux.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)