The ‘6.5’ – what is their role, and can they be successful?


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)

23 thoughts on “The ‘6.5’ – what is their role, and can they be successful?

  1. I think what this article, recent games and performances have shown beyond anything else, is that an out and out 7 being a necessity is actually a myth.

    Handy? Yes. Necessity? No.

  2. I’m in the camp that doesn’t really go for the rigid definitions of 6 or 7 and what this means they need to be like. I genuinely think that Robshaw’s “problem” i.e. him not being picked for the Lions or feted as much as other 7s, is that he isn’t as good as the other options. It’s not that he’s in the wrong position – it’s that there are better backrow players than him at 6 and 7. It’s about balance in the backrow.

    Wales play Sam at 7 when they have the tackling machine Lydiate on form. When Lyds isn’t on form we move to Sam at 6, Tips at 7 and Tips doesn’t play like Sam does at 7. He’s more of a backrow/centre cross but the balance still works.

    I know Robshaw is excellent but what I always say when I’m often lambasted for suggesting that he isn’t excellent is that excellence is a given for international players – the best ones are extraordinary and he isn’t.

    Good article.

    1. I couldn’t disagree more – Robshaw is extraordinary and what makes him so is his work-rate and amazing consistency

      With the exception of McCaw, I cannot think of another player who puts out such good performances game after game.

      Even in the debacle against Wales, Robshaw was a shining light and one of the few who could hold his head up. This autumn he played Hooper off the park and just lost out to the best open-side flanker in recent history.

      I would take Robshaw over any other flanker in the Northern Hemisphere

      Since Lydiate has been out of form, its made it clear that he was the player who allowed Warburton to shine and without him, Warburton has looked ordinary. Hooper entirely out-played him

      O’Brien is good but I think this article exaggerates his turn-over prowess. His carrying is exemplary, but if stopped before he gets going, he sometimes fades into the background.

      Of the southern hemisphere, the only flankers I’d take ahead of Robshaw are McCaw and Pocock. Louw is getting there but seems to be a bit of liability on occasion

      1. Agree with most of that other than Louw being behind Robshaw – I think he’s quite far ahead and would put him in the McCaw/Hooper league.

        This is what frustrates me about people’s analysis of Robshaw. Why should being consistently excellent be any less important or admirable than being occasionally brilliant? I don’t have time to do it now but I’d imagine that if you looked back over the player ratings since he came into the England side, he’s unlikely to have got anything lower than a 7 (perhaps Wales game aside), with a few 8s/9s thrown in there. He may not hit that 8/9 level as often as, say, McCaw or Hooper, but neither is he ever an anonymous 5. That consistency is extremely undervalued in my eyes.

  3. Good read. I agree to a certain extent; and I was certainly calling for Robshaw’s position to be looked at pre-Autumn.

    One thing I would say though, is that this article has selected the three back rows that fit this article, and not necessarily the three back row units that are miles ahead of everyone else, as suggested.

    The English back row unit (other then when we had the ridiculous situation where Wood was at 8), has not looked out of place against anyone. So who’s to say it isn’t working? I’m not just talking this Autumn here I should say, I’m going back into 2012 to think of a day where we were dominated as a back row unit.

    I also think that there are quite a few very good 7s coming through the ranks in England without having to look at Armitage. Fraser, Wallace and Kvesic are all looking like good prospects.

  4. Picking up on what Andy says about the 7 not being a “necessity”, I would ask – define necessity?

    Yes, you can have a decent team without a proper 7, and by that I mean a pacey loose with exceptional breakdown and gamesmanship skills, but can you be the best team in the World without one? No, you can’t. A glance at the best teams in the last 30 years shows that all of them had someone with proper 7 skills.

    For example, during the short period when England were the best team in the world, Richard Hill would sometimes play at seven, and he was one of the best loose forwards in the world, but England were a poorer team when he was there at 7 and Neil Back wasn’t.

    So, I agree with Alex, a seven is still vital. I agree with Brighty also, that there are different types of sevens, but they all have some things in common, outstanding breakdown nous. And to borrow Brighty’s lexicon, no excellent team can become an exceptional one without such a player. Therefore they are a necessity by that definition.

  5. I’m not fixated on what a 6 or 7 is or isn’t either. I think it’s about what the back row do collectively as a unit.

    2012 ABs – Wood, Robshaw, Morgan – Excellent
    2013 Scotland – Wood, Robshaw, Morgan – Excellent
    2013 Ireland – Haskell, Robshaw, Wood – OK in an arm wrestle but not great
    2013 France – Lawes, Robshaw, Wood – Awful
    2013 Italy – Haskell, Robshaw, Wood – Poor
    2013 Wales – Croft, Robshaw, Wood – Abysmal
    2013 Autumn – Wood, Robshaw, Vunipola – Excellent

    When we have the balance right, the combined work and monumental engines of Wood and Robshaw with a proper ball carrying 8 who, can control a ball at the base of the scrum, there isn’t a problem to solve. When we get the balance wrong and aren’t using Robshaw/Wood to their strengths we start looking for “an out and out 7”. I’m happy with 2×6.5 + 8.

    I’m not happy with 3*6.5 or 2 * 6.5 + 4 or any other ridiculous combination we’ve tried this year.

    1. Only a fool would suggest that Robshaw/Wood + a proper 8 isn’t a good back row.

      I think a lot of people (myself included) feel that one of Kvesic or Wallace could replace Wood to actually increase the backrow’s quality.
      Wallace coming into the starting 7 (although they still play Robshaw at 7 out of stubbornness) shirt for Quins will hopefully show why traditional 6/7/8 combo is so well liked.

      1. Dropping Wood and improving the back row are mutually exclusive in my opinion. Because Wood is so generalist (tackles, carries, lineout, pace, restarts, breakdown) taking him out, moving Robshaw across and bringing a specialist groundhog in will just cause other problems as a lot of the stuff that Wood does will just go undone.

        Of the problems England have the current back row isn’t one of them. When we have started messing with it (largely injury induced but there were other 8s to pick) is when it’s gone wrong. So I would be disappointed if we started changing the area that went best in the Autumn just because Robshaw isn’t a good as McCaw or Hooper.

        1. There isn’t a “problem” in the back row per se… but it’s the only part of our pack where most people feel there are relatively simple improvements to be made.
          Where we’ve messed with the back row recently we’ve used completely unorthodox combinations that look bad on paper, let alone in practice.

          i’d also point out that in the premiership last year Kvesic, Wood and Wallace all made 7 tackles on average per match, and Kvesic and Wallace both made more carries per match than Wood.
          I don’t have stats for rucks (who does?) but I’d expect there wouldn’t be a great disparity there.
          You certainly can’t claim that either Kvesic or Wallace would leave work to be done by others.

          1. Wood is also our second lineout option and our source of quality ball at the back (not that we are doing anything with it admittedly). Kvesic and Wallace can tackle as well, Kvesic is better over the ball, Wallace probably a better link man, but when you look at every facet of play I struggle to think of a better all-rounder than Wood.

            This combination have gone up against 2 of the leading specialists in Hooper (who was ineffective) and McCaw (who was second best at the breakdown). With so much up in the air in the backs we should be giving the existing trio as many games together as possible so they continue to develop as a combination, not make a change to solve a problem we don’t have when we’ve finally found a balance that works.

  6. Good article. Even better comment from jack.
    What more does robshaw have to do by the way?
    He made more metres than o’brien in the six nations, he moves the point of contact in the way that Martyn Williams used to be praised for and the unseen stuff he adds, especially in defence means, in my opinion, he is a player you maybe dont notice till he isn’t there. (Similar to hill at the World Cup in 2003 for example) plus his leadership qualities.

    The hunt for the fetcher in the northern hemisphere means that tipuric is losing out in his battle for the 7 jersey to a player who puts in more average performances than good ones. (The argument for warburton because of fetching ability being flawed anyway as his turnover stats are unimpressive) and has jack has said so eloquently.

    Schalk burger!

  7. Stats aren’t everything of course, but there’s few more consistent than Robshaw, and his stats nearly always outshine Woods.

    Personally as another has pointed out, once England have that big carrying 8 in place, it leaves Wood and Robshaw to act as 6.5s and basically the guy nearest the ruck gets his head over. It works very well in balance. I think if we ever see Croft back, he’d need to be paired with a Kvesic/Fraser type. It’s not that Croft doesn’t do the flanker work, but he is still more of a classic 6, requiring the 7 for balance.

  8. Balance.

    Whatever the personnel, and whatever the merits of each, it is about finding the right balance, not just in the back row either, but with the complementary players in other positions.

    A lot is made about the number of turnovers that Robshaw doesn’t make, but this is irrelevant if others within the team are making these turnovers. Engineering a straight swap of Robshaw and for example, a “classic” 7 like Armitage will not necessarily increase the number of turnovers from the team.

    Dan makes a very good example of this, when noting Tom Crofts effect on the team balance.

    The fact is that very few teams at international level manage a turnover at the first phase breakdown (because the attacking side is so well organised at this point), so having your master ball stealer at 7 is not necessary, as they can organise themselves (as a team) from that first breakdown, to ensure that the teams best ball stealers are in the positions most likely to get that opportunity.

    Don’t forget also that these teams work very hard on nullifying these ball stealers, and will often engineer moves that are intended to take them out of the game. Not as in “injure”, but in fact to tie them at the bottom of a ruck, in order to launch a strike move away from their preying hands.

    So the likes of McCaw and Hooper are often relegated so slowing the ball, which is not an insignificant skill in itself, but is a far more defensive action.

    This whole conversation reminds me of the Second-Row article. If your big fella is not ruling the lineout he can often be forgotten, but he could still be offering himself as a lineout diversion, stopping their big runners around the fringes and providing the ballast to make the props look effective in the scrum.

    Its the same with the openside. Just because he is not turning over the ball constantly, it doesn’t mean he is not making the team work well.

  9. Tend to agree with most of the comments on here.

    What are the essential jobs of a back row unit. Breakdown, tackling, linking and ball carrying. When we have had Wood and Robshaw in the backrow with a ball carrying 8, we have all of these jobs covered and indeed have outplayed many of the “famed” SH units. Oz this year, NZ last year. This backrow gives us the balance that has been talked about and is very effective. It might be that Robshaw wouldn’t work in other combinations quite as well, although I’m not convinced by this.

    Also not convinced that Wales have the best NH backrow. I have been saying that Lydiate is a shadow of the player he was before injury for a long time and it seems that now everyone is finally waking up to this. Wales best unit now is Faletau, Warburton as a 6.5 and Tipuric as 7. It’s a good unit to be sure, but is it the best? I guess that the 6N will answer this question!

    1. As a unit I would pick the current England trio (+impact sub) over any of their NH counterparts based on performances this Autumn. With Vunipola in you get more big hits and a higher workrate than Morgan (though not for the full 80 yet), with Morgan off the bench you an exceptional combination of pace and power.

      I’m happier with this back row than any since the RWC 2003 vintage.

  10. I have but one name to throw in hear……………. Jacques Burger. Captain of probably the weakest nation in the last few World Cups, and yet possibly the most hard working, dependable and feared 7 in the Premiership.

  11. A fearsome tackler certainly. but that is an interesting point, which further fuels the “natural 7” debate.

    There are some who would suggest that the “traditional 7’s” should do less tackling. Certainly the likes of England and South Africa will try to engage the McCaws, Hoopers in as many tackles as they can, so that they are not the ones hanging off the tackle, waiting to pounce. Think Lydiate/Warburton.

    One reason that Wales can be so effective with both Tipuric and Warburton late in games, is that it is very difficult to effectively target the pair of them.

    So, I would view Burger more of the old-fashioned type 7. The ones we used to play against on a weekly basis in the West Country, who were hell-bent on smashing everything in an oppo shirt, and disrupting for the full 80 mins. That is not to belittle his skills, but I would bracket him, and his type separately to the 6.5 and the “ball stealer”.

  12. The 6’5 does not exist. You are a 6 or a 7, simple as. A lot of 6’s operate at 7 across the leagues but there is no 6’5 role. Chris Robshaw wears the 7 jersey but Luke Wallace is the Quins openside scavenger. This whole 6’5 thing has only really cropped up now Robshaw is playing 7 for England. He is not a 7 in anyway, shape or form. The 7’s job is too disrupt opposition ball, act as a support running for the outside backs and most importantly win turnovers. Robshaw does none of these. He is a great 6, he tackles, he hits rucks and carries hard. This is the blindsides role. He is in the England side based on leadership. Tom Wood/Croft both better blindsides. Wallace/Fraser and Kvesic are the future 7’s of England. When these mature and are ready to make the step up at 6N/RWC level, Robshaw will be a bit part player at most.

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