What’s the difference between a 6 and a 7?
Although the debate raged long before the stunning success of the brilliant Australian “Pooper” back-row combination of Michael Hooper and David Pocock, during the World Cup. Never forgetting to mention the genius that is or should I sadly say was, Richie Macaw. Aligned with the arrival at Wasps of George Smith, possibly the second greatest seven ever to have graced a rugby field, has re-stoked the debate about the merits of a Seven versus those of a Six.
There is no dispute the game has changed massively since the heyday of the seven or open-side flanker to give them their correct title. The skill sets of the players, the adjustment to the rules, the change in playing style and tactics. As well as the attitudes and indeed the tolerance of referees, no longer make the traditional fly half harrying role of the seven, so wonderfully epitomised by the like of Peter Winterbottom and Neil Back to mention but two, really applicable to today’s game.
However the other great skill set possessed by the traditional seven. Namely their speed to be first to the breakdown and their subsequent ability over the ball, has become even more valued and lauded in the modern era than it ever was.
The simple reason is with teams being now so well-drilled in defence, with specialist coaches solely focussed and engaged in this area, “turnover ball” has become the weapon of choice for most if not all teams. Time and time again a quick turnover has proved to be the catalyst in unlocking even the best drilled defensive systems because put simply, it provides the attacking team with that vital element of surprise.
So having a Pooper combo or indeed just one of these brilliant exponents in your team, is the ambition of every Director of Rugby. They don’t even have to play at seven – Pocock wore and played at eight for Australia throughout the World Cup, as well as during the lead-up matches. As indeed does Stefan Armitage for Toulon. So it’s not so much the number, as the man that counts.
Indeed what of the Six – The blind side forward, traditionally the big ball carrier, as well as nominally the main tackler. However the modern game now sees props and second rows used very much in this role. So there is no doubt the role and dynamics of modern rugby are constantly changing and evolving.
In truth the modern back row player needs to be multi-faceted and the truly leading exponents, able to play across all three back row positions.