Australia Leading the Way in Flanker Play

Posted: May 21, 2015 in International Rugby, Rugby, World Cup
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For years and years, a loose forward was seen as a monster of sorts. They were massive men. They may not have always been tall but they were always certainly wide. Think of Phil Waugh, Jerry Collins, David Wallace, Lawrence Dallalgio, Joe Worsley, Scott Quinnell. These were big men, who could drive back any player who was unfortunate enough to run into them. Not only were they big men, but they were skilful players. Remember Zinzan Brooke’s World Cup drop-goal? It was a connection some backs can only dream of.

But over the years the loose forward changed. They became more in demand around the pitch. Second row players are now becoming as athletic as the three men who line up behind them. Out with the Martin Johnsons, the Bob Caseys, the Fabien Pelous’, in with the Courtney Lawes’, the Samu Manoas, the Sam Whitelocks.

Granted, you can argue the case that an awful lot of second rows are still enormous men who do the “donkey work” as it’s so called. But these players skill set must offer much more than they did in the past. Second rows are now comfortable running in space with ball in hand and offloading, much like backrow players.

You can also argue that a number of gigantic backrow players still exist. The Georgian Gorgodza towers above a lot of his opposite numbers, as do the likes of Jerome Kaino and Sergio Parisse. But their role on the pitch is changing from hunting players carrying the ball to becoming all-round footballers. Dusautoir is a prime example-his tackling work rate is phenomenal, but he is also very good carrying.

Backrowers are now beginning to act as utility backs, and it’s Micheal Hooper and David Pocock who are leading the way. Cooper has pace to burn and the hands to go with it. In the first minute against the Sharks last weekend, he cut a beautiful line at pace to then put Adam Ashley-Cooper over the try line with a simple pass. Later in the game he gathered a fumbled lineout and raced out of his 22. Granted, he knocked the ball on in what was an error-strewn first half by the Waratahs, but his pace was clear as day.

Pocock is not long back from his second injury and is playing as if he invented the breakdown. He is also a certainty to be included in Australia’s World Cup squad and, in all likelihood, battle with Hooper for a starting position. In his first game back for the Brumbies he forced at least five turnovers from ruck ball. Earlier in February he returned from 12 months absence through an ACL injury in a game against the Reds and made 11 breaks. Not bad by the flanker.

So who will start for Australia when the time comes? Why not both. Pocock is physically bigger than Hooper, and certainly has the skill set to play on the opposite side of the scrum. Hooper has more pace than Pocock and links brilliantly with the back line, as we witnessed again last weekend. Having the option to select these two wing forwards in an international team must have Micheal Cheika thinking he is coaching the Barbarians.

Having both on the pitch will allow both players to play to their respective strengths. Hooper should be given free-reign to play how he likes, with the objective of linking with the backs. This will allow him to play with ball in hand, run support lines and to win quick ruck ball.

Pocock should then be told to stick to his destructive best. Lines should be run off ten, and in defense he will slow up opposition ball so that Australia’s defence can get set into a solid formation; that’s if he doesn’t turn the ball over first.

People may now wonder if these roles would take away from the type of game these two backrowers play, and the answer is absolutely not. Both have the rugby brain to know where they are needed, be it Hooper in the ruck or Pocock linking with the backs in order to speed up play. One may be used as a substitute, coming off the bench at 60 minutes as a means of Cheika showing his strength in depth. But in my opinion, if you have two of the best flankers in world rugby to choose, you don’t leave one on the bench.

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