Who has the best back row in the Six Nations?

heaslip robshaw

Last week there was a lot of reasoned debate/exasperated rage over who had the best back row in the Six Nations. Is it Wales’ much-lauded trio of Lydiate/Warburton/Faletau? Or is England’s increasingly established unit of Wood/Robshaw/Vunipola leading the way now? And how much impact has Peter O’Mahony actually had for Ireland?

These are all interesting questions, and ones we hope to answer below. Our friends over at Accenture have been kind enough to provide us with some handy statistics on the different back-rows’ involvements so far this Championship, and we’ve conducted some ‘analysis’.

Fair warning though – stats are not the be all and end all. As Scott Johnson famously said, “Statistics are a bit like bikinis – it shows a lot but not the whole thing.” So take these with a pinch of salt, of course.


stats wales

N.B. ‘Total jackals’ refers to turnovers won, ‘Total turnovers’ refers to when the player has been turned over, ‘Turnovers after tackle’ refers to when the player has been turned over at the tackle area.

The theme here would seem to be a high defensive workrate. Dan Lydiate’s tally of 40 tackles is second only to Chris Robshaw, while Toby Faletau and Sam Warburton have 25 apiece.

However, they have not used their back-row to carry as much, or as effectively, as other nations. Faletau has carried 30 times, but has only returned 58 metres – compare that with the tournaments leading carrier, Louis Picamoles, who has made only ten more but has returned a whopping 194 metres.


stats england

England’s back-row has thus far seemed pretty well balanced, apparently having learnt the lessons of last year’s debacle with Tom Wood at eight. Vunipola has carried to greatest effect, making 136 metres from 39 carries, but Robshaw has also chipped in in this regard with an impressive 28 carries.

The figures do highlight the captain’s insatiable work rate – he tops the tackle stats with 43, and allied with that carrying figure and 22 passes made, his importance to England in the loose cannot be understated.


stats ireland

Peter O’Mahony’s tally of nine ‘jackals’ is what stands out here – it is six more than any other back row player, and highlights how effective he has been at the breakdown. He has, however, missed just under 20% of his tackles – not an attractive figure – and has been turned over a few times himself.

That is offset by the hard work of Henry and Heaslip, however, who between them have made 66 tackles and missed just two. Heaslip’s role in linking the forwards and the backs is also clearly highlighted by his 21 passes.


stats scotland

It is tough to analyse Scotland’s merry-go-round of a back-row, given how much it has changed. Dave Denton was dropped for the last game despite being comfortably their most effective ball carrier (88 metres made), while Ryan Wilson has weighed in with 29 tackles – although given that he has missed six, and made 14 fewer than top tackler Robshaw, his effectiveness should be questioned.

Chris Fusaro is one of the most accurate players of the tournament so far, having not missed a tackle or been turned over in the two games he has played so far. He has represented Scotland’s biggest threat at the breakdown, too, with two jackals to his name (and so, naturally, he has been dropped for this weekend’s game with France).


stats France

France’s decision to drop Louis Picamoles looks baffling when you consider his stats – he has made the most metres (194) from the second most carries (40) and beaten the most defenders (11) of any back-rower. Whoever replaces him at Murrayfield has quite a job to do.

Elsewhere Yannick Nyanga’s hard work can be seen in his number of tackles, although he has also been quite inaccurate, having been turned over three times.


stats italy

Italy’s back row have been less successful individually on the floor than most, with only Roberto Barbieri managing to complete a ‘jackal’ successfully.

Sergio Parisse is often lauded as an Italian genius, and while he has been kept relatively quiet this Six Nations he still has some impressive stats, carrying 45 times for 153 metres, while also giving the most passes (26) of any back row player, highlighting his importance as a link player in open play.


stats overall

So what does all this tell us?

Wales’ ball-carrying stats compare less favourably with France or Italy, but then they tend to use the likes of Jamie Roberts, George North, Richard Hibbard et al to get them over the gainline more than their Italian and French counterparts do, so do not rely on their back-row in that sense.

Peter O’Mahony is excellent at ‘jackalling’ and makes Ireland the most threatening at the breakdown, but can sometimes fall off tackles – that is a luxury afforded them by the presence of Chris Henry, who sweeps up what O’Mahony misses.

Would Ireland be as effective with Sean O’Brien at openside? As good a player as he is, possibly not – that was the back-row that featured prominently in last year’s Six Nations, when they looked no where near as good as they do now.

England have had the least presence at the breakdown, winning the fewest ‘jackals’ and being turned over the most – which is interesting, given that calls for a ‘true’ seven seem to have died down for now.

So the stats would suggest that France, England and Italy have had the most attacking return from their back-row, while Wales and Ireland have formed the best defensive units. Scotland, meanwhile, haven’t really excelled in any area – no doubt something to do with the consistent chopping and changing.

Would you agree with that? Which back-row do you think has been the most effective this Six Nations?

By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43

Accenture, Official Technology Partner of the RBS 6 Nations, brings you deeper insight into the Championship. Follow @AccentureRugby for all the latest stats and analysis.

33 thoughts on “Who has the best back row in the Six Nations?

  1. So you’ve just proven that England still play 10 man rugby? :-)

    Good point about Wales – we carry through the centres, could be something to improve ie mix it up and use the backrow more often.

    I am personally happy with how these stats make Wales look in the backrow. Best defence and 2nd highest num of jackals looks like a good return to me.

    1. How have you drawn that England comment from these stats? Genuinely interested to know how these stats suggest that?

      1. A slightly tongue in cheek comment Jacob, hence the :-). Jamie pointed out that the England backrow make the most carries and, specifically in the case of Wales, pointed out this was likely because Wales use their centres more for the carrying. Take that a little further and one could mischievously say that the other teams pass the ball to their backs to do the running, England keep it up the jumper with the forwards.

        1. Ah right I see where you are going with that! Assumed it was tongue in cheek – just hadn’t quite worked out the thought process for the joke! Got it now!

    2. Don’t see how it’s possible to draw that conclusion from an analysis of 3 people …. however what it does show is Lydiate can tackle but offers nothing else!

      1. And yet what a tackler – when he tackles like that he’s straight into my team. “nothing else” doesn’t matter. Give me a guy who can tackle half as well but who also carries and I’d dismiss him.

        1. Hang on Brighty – I thought the Welsh back row were the perfect unit? And that’s why they should be put together, right?

          How come they need other players in the team to shoulder the ball carrying then…? Sounds like a missing link to me.

          1. Ha. They are a perfect defensive/jackalling unit. They leave the running with the ball to the backs because we’ve got ones that run straight, pass off both hands and use overlaps ….

            (JOKE – do I really need to point that out?)

            1. Ha! Backs that pass and run straight are overrated!

              Still not a massive Lydiate fan. I know you don’t but I do want more from a back row player. To be he could at least be a decent line out option or something. But he isn’t even that.

              Incredible at what he does, but needs to offer more to start putting himself in the world class bracket for 6s. Good international player currently, but that’s it.

              Also very surprised by how poor Faletau’s carrying stats are, I thought he offered more than that in the loose. Although to be fair to him this is analysing just three matches.

        2. Provided he’s not a penalty machine as well :)

          I’m a Lydiate fan (when on form), my tongue in cheek comment is just a response to yours. If the back row carried and never passed then there’s a case to answer. But the top passing back row is also England’s, so are are probably doing the best as link men. So I would argue you can’t reasonably conclude that the stats prove England play 10 man rugby, but you can reasonable conclude Lydiate is only useful to the part of the game where you don’t have the ball!

          1. I suspect the stats including passing to each other in the backrow. Those English forwards don’t want the ball getting out the backs. Lord knows what might happen … rugby might break out … and then where would we be? Chaos.

            1. Hahaha! Well the ball is getting out to the backs somehow, 5 backs tries in 3 games is an absolute feast for us! How are you doing in that regard?

          1. Yeah, but Joe could only handle instructions to tackle one specific player. Lyds can tackle whoever runs at him. Big leap forward.

            1. You’re basing that Worsley comment on the match where he stopped Roberts I believe.
              However good Lydiate is at tackling people running at him I am yet to see him pull off a tackle like Worsley’s on Vincent Clerc 2007 world cup. I’m going to argue Lydiate is a step down from Joe not a step up

            2. 10 tries in 79 tests for Worsley, compares favourably to the comparably sized Welsh inside centre. Worsley was a lot more than a mad axeman in his prime.

    3. Brighty, having read a few of your comments on here you prove the point that it is impossible to talk to the Welsh about sport.

      1. Alan, you might want to try and reread this thread and see the tongue stuck firmly in the cheek of all the participants.

        Those who want to see bias usually do. Just like holding up a mirror.

  2. Interesting but the data limits us when looking at just the back row.

    Whilst its pointed out that Wales use their centres and Hibbard to carry, it isn’t pointed out that Englands balance comes because Launchbury and Cole offer excellent “jackling” options.

    I like the idea of comparing back rows but it can be misleading for those reasons.

  3. I think that the only thing it tells us about the way the teams play is that they all use their 8’s as prime ball carriers. Shame that there are no figures for Ben Morgan, as he would certainly increase the tackle and metres stats. I would imagine that he has played around a third of the game time for England.

  4. I’d take Jamie’s “bikini” quote to heart here. It’s all just a bit of fun, especially sponsored ones like these. Sporting stats are always an excellent thing to use to prove/disprove any argument you want.

    1. Couldn’t agree more. One example that came into my head was Care’s try against Ireland. Robshaw got on the outside of D’Arcy, and gave the ball to Brown. Probably counted for 1 successful carry and 1 successful pass in these stats. But it could be argued that his actions directly led to a line break and a beaten defender too. There must be many other similar instances that can be quoted. I still find it interesting to see the data though.

  5. Shame the offload and penalty counts aren’t in there as well. Hard to argue against Ireland being the best all round unit thus far. From what I’ve seen O’Mahony has been getting away with going past the ball, forearms on the deck then quickly coming back onto it. Not legal as I understand it, but certainly an exhibition of how to do it well.

    England’s back row have turned the ball over 10 times, but I’m assuming 7 of these are errors such as knock ons and it’s the 3 after the tackle where they’ve taken it into contact and not retained it. Don’t think this is too bad considering the number of carries and doesn’t scream “we need an out and out 7 for better ball protection”.

    I’m now more worried about the loss of Vunipola, he’s got through a serious amount of work when you factor in minutes on the pitch (probably less than 160). Morgan may make more meters per carry (as he’s often taking the ball deeper and has more pace) but I’m not sure he’ll be getting his hands on the ball as frequently

    1. “O’Mahony has been getting away with going past the ball, forearms on the deck then quickly coming back onto it” Yes, and the absolute stickler for that, in my experience, is Allain Rolland so I guess Mahony luckily avoids ever being reffed by him on it. Poite tends to pick it up a fair bit as well – wasn’t he the ref in the England game? Didn’t he warn Mahony early on about it and perhaps that explains his more muted impact on that game? I could be confused though about that…

      Saturday has some interesting issues to resolve in the 8 – England without Vuni and Cole, two of their standouts I think most would agree. Wales look to be at full strength in the 8 (AWJ just confirmed fit) so there’s no excuses for us. Which is usually right about the point where it starts to come unstuck.

      Oh, and England don’t have Corbs as well. I know they hardly ever have him but he is for me the best loosehead they have by miles and they miss him as well.

      1. I meant Sunday. I’d better get that right, don’t want to be turning up there on Sat all confused by the silence.

      2. Joubert was the ref for the England game, but I’m pretty sure he did speak to O’Mahony early on about something.

  6. Can’t quite understand the jackals total. I think that we all thought Robshaw had three in the Ireland game, but it doesn’t show up as such. Oh well. Might be an interesting stat to look at who the teams who have been “jackalled” the most. That would show who’s backrow wasn’t working as well at the breakdown. How many did POM have in the Wales game?

    Have to say that based on stats, England don’t look as good, but my feeling was that we had a backrow operating at a high level. Not sure which one is wrong – the stats or my waters? Maybe time for a hospital check up!

    1. We win more turnovers from other players outside the back row. Cole, Launchbury, probably even Farrell and 36 have better turnover stats than our back row. Would be interesting to see stats for turnovers won, and who has the highest outside the back row.

      1. I agree with you Dazza, and suspect the stats would back you up. This to me is a good example of “bad stats” use though. I expect that Farrell/12Ts outshine other backs in num of rucks hit and turnovers won. Unfortunately they are then in said ruck when the ball comes out, so your 10/12 are not where they need to be to use the ball after the ruck. This is an old hobby horse of mine I know, but I just don’t rate the “hard tackling/rucking 10” approach that Farrell gets feted for. Get the backs out of the way and let the forwards hit the rucks. Give me a 10 who can run the line, distribute and spot when to pass/kick. Stick Lydiate in front of him for defence and we’re sorted.

  7. Incorrect comment regarding o mahoney being turned over 5 times I think, if I read it right stats say just once which improves his value greatly.

    Don’t quite understand Brighty comment either, if anything it shows england use the back row in attack better than the welsh, while in turn, they defend more strongly. Seems like both units could improve but nothing that says england are 5 men worse off than wales??

  8. When I wrote that there were only 2 comments!! I must type really slowly!! Get the comment now :-)

  9. How you can say a player of Sean O’Brien’s quality wouldn’t have an effect on any team’s backrow set up is ridiculous! To use the logic of “that was the backrow of last year” as proof is a bit short sighted. The Irish team this year is basically the same as last year, yet this year they sit at the top of the table having conceded 1 try and having the best points difference! The new coaches game plan has made a huge difference! SOB’s performance against the all blacks (the last time that backrow started together) should be proof he would make a difference. SOB’s carrying is massive for Ireland and he is their best at it. It is fair to say that between his carrying and breakdown work he is worth a few extra points to any side! Enough that Ireland would’ve beaten England with him in the side? He definitely would’ve made a huge difference!

Comments are closed.