The misunderstood truth of the second row

Despite enjoying a nickname as glorious as the ‘engine room’, second rows seem to consistently be undervalued by the media, and don’t enjoy the attention that some of their colleagues in the pack do. When a side is dominant in the scrum, praise goes to the props, with little regard for the brutes a row back who are powering the glamour boys of the front row, and conversations about the breakdown seem to begin and end with the lightweight, demi-backs that call themselves loose forwards. All jokes aside, even when debating the merits of a side’s lineout, it is not uncommon to see the hooker and back row talked about more frequently than two locks, who invariably provide a team with their first and second jumpers at the set piece.

Rant done and dusted, it’s time to look at the construction of arguably the most underrated and/or overlooked unit in any club or international side. Since South Africa’s successful World Cup campaign in 2007, the fashion, in international rugby particularly, has been to find a combination of enforcer and technician in the second row. For South Africa, Bakkies Botha was the physical enforcer, whilst Victor Matfield was the lineout ‘nause’, and this compliment of brain and brawn proved to be the perfect blend for the Springboks. Not only did they play a major role in delivering South Africa’s second World Cup, but they have also been key components in redefining the way the position is now played.

South Africa have stayed true this strategy, with the intimidating physical specimen that is Eben Etzebeth following in the footsteps of Botha, and former Northampton Saint Juandre Kruger, and the Bulls’ Flip van der Merwe, sharing time alongside him, as the technicians. The Boks also have the highly talented Pieter-Steph du Toit pushing his claim for more playing time, and at just 21, could form a devastating partnership with Etzebeth for the next decade, and the pair could even outshine the legendary duo of Matfield and Botha. For those who witnessed first-hand the damage that Matfield and Botha could do to teams, this a troubling development, and they need to look at the players they’re currently moulding to take on Etzebeth and du Toit, and decide whether they want to fight fire with fire, or take a different approach.

Ireland are currently in the process of saying goodbye to their own enforcer and lineout ‘nause’ in Donncha O’Callaghan and Paul O’Connell, whilst Wales’ second row is currently in their prime, with one of Bradley Davies or Ian Evans usually packing down alongside Alun Wyn Jones. As successful as both these units have been in recent years, you wouldn’t be overly confident about their prospects of going up against Matfield and Botha, or even Etzebeth and du Toit, who are just at the beginnings of their careers. There’s a similar story in Scotland with Jim Hamilton and Richie Gray, and cases can be even made that Australia have tried to fill these stereotypes with James Horwill and Rob Simmons, but they still, both on paper and on the field, seem no match for the Boks.

This leaves three nations; New Zealand, England, and France. None of these three have followed the script written by South African forwards for over a decade now, and they could be the better for it. New Zealand’s pairing of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick are arguably the best technical combination in the world, whilst Retallick also adds his considerable bulk to the equation. England meanwhile, boast the most athletic combination in Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes, and although Lawes doesn’t have the bulk of Retallick, he plays two, or even three stone heavier, thanks to his incredible physicality. France has yet to commit to a second row pairing, but could well end up going with Yoann Maestri and Sebastien Vahaamahina, in which case they’ll be fielding two hugely physical locks, and will certainly need an athletic back row to compensate. Currently, these are the only second row units I can see challenging the pairing of Etzebeth and du Toit for the foreseeable future, although a honourable mention should go to Scotland, who could have a very effective combination in the Gray brothers, but this is an untested pairing as things stand. The point, however, is that none of these sides have subscribed to the popular enforcer and technician formula pioneered by the South Africans.

There’s no doubting how effective South Africa have been with this strategy, but it fits conveniently with the two strongest aspects of South Africa’s game; their set piece and their physicality. Other nations struggle to replicate this success with their players because they simply don’t have the players available to them who can fulfil these roles to the same standard. In South Africa, where set piece ability and physical rugby are drummed into kids as soon as they get into the sport, there is usually a relative abundance of players capable of stepping up to the plate. The beauty of both the All Black and English second row units, is that they have played to their own strengths, and have arguably selected the two best players available to them. Combinations are very important, but can, at times, be overrated. Furthermore, if Retallick develops a physicality akin to his frame, and Launchbury becomes as technically gifted as he is athletic, then both New Zealand and England will ultimately have the technician and enforcer duo in their engine room, without having had to manufacture it, which can often be to the detriment of talent and ability at the position.

It’s certainly a good time to be a fan of second row play, and with as much exciting young talent at the position as I can remember, hopefully locks will start to earn the kind of praise that has been missing since the 2007 World Cup.

by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)

Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images

3 thoughts on “The misunderstood truth of the second row

  1. I think the enforcer/technician pairing has been going longer than 2007. Look at the England ’03 side with Kay and Johnson – it is exactly that.

    I do think that the pairing issue has become more of a big deal in recent years, but I don’t think it essential.

    On a side note, can’t believe that you have genuinely typed the words, “glamour boys of the front row”.

  2. A friend of mine theorizes that second row quality is the most accurate predictor of team success. But he’s a South Africa, so it figures.

    It’s a sin that no lock has been IRB player of the year. Not even the incomparable Matfield in 2007 or 2009. South Africa would certainly have won the WC without Habana, but certainly not without Matfield.

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