The role of the blindside flanker
You need to blend the talents of three players to produce a back row unit whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts, says Peter Tann.
Clarify the role – the "traditional" blindside specialist
The first decision you need to make when you are coaching rugby is to identify the roles you expect your blindside to fulfil, over and above his basic duties. Physically, he may well be a bigger, slightly slower player than the openside. Mentally, he should relish the physical confrontations that such a role demands, but this does not mean he should be ruled by the "red mist!"
Michael Jones, the great All Black flanker who turned himself from a world class No 7 into a world class No 6, was nicknamed "Iceman". A shrewd thinker as well as a fierce tackler, he was put in charge of defence from set pieces by John Hart, the All Black coach.
What type of blindside do you want?
Is he going to be a "forager", looking to secure possession in the rucks and mauls? Is he going to be a destroyer in defence, disrupting the opposition with his aggressive tackling and "big hits"? Is he primarily a supporter in the lineout?
In the process, he will also be freeing up the other two members of the back row to play a more creative role in attack. If this sounds like your plan, then you should see the blindside as more of a tight forward, playing somewhat closer to rucks, mauls and off the set pieces.
Not all coaches differentiate this way between open and blindside flankers. Some coaches look to play their two best runners and handlers on the flanks, the idea being to enhance continuity and ball-winning at the breakdown.
In this team many of the "traditional" blindside flanker's roles would be fulfilled by the number 8. The Australian back row of Waugh, Smith and Lyons is an example of this selection.
Another option is to play left and right flankers, as France with Magne and Betsen. The idea here is that the two players share the running, foraging, and the like, rather than placing all the expectation on a single player. Given the increasing physical demands upon players during a game, this is perhaps a more realistic approach to back row selection.
Coaches should also consider the impact of changing from one style to another during the course of a game with tactical substitutions.
Whatever system you choose as coach, the blindside flanker has certain key roles in defence.
Defence from the lineout
From a lineout the blindside's first responsibility is to tackle any player coming around the end of the lineout, preferably driving him back or towards touch. If the ball has been played to the backs straight away, the blindside flanker should defend the hole between the fly half (10) and the end of the lineout. If pressure forces the fly half to cut back, or he passes/switches back inside, the blindside should be there to make the tackle.
Defence from the scrum
There are different arguments concerning which player should be making the first tackle from a scrum. Whatever system is chosen, the crucial element is communication – the back row should be talking to each other and the scrum half (9) at every scrum. My preferences are:
- On the right hand side of the field, the scrum half takes the first man round and the number 8 the second. The blindside flanker is there to assist both.
- On the left hand side, the blindside flanker takes the first man round and the number 8 the second.
As with the lineout, once play moves away from the scrum, the area between the fly half and the scrum is the blindside flanker's responsibility. Again, if the fly half switches play back inside, the blindside must be there to stop it.
Therefore, the blindside flanker should not move across the field from the scrum too early. he should wait until the ball has moved wide enough that there is little chance of it coming back before moving across. Here it is very important that each back row player knows the roles of the others within the defensive system they are operating, so that no gaps are left.
Defence in depth v pressure defence
Some coaches argue that their blindside flanker should cover behind the backs/other back row players, whereas others instruct them to head straight for where the ball is. Both approaches have their merits. The first offers defence in depth and gives the blindside more time to read the opposition play, the second is more aggressive and increases the chances of halting an attack early and winning possession via a turnover.
The decision as to which system to operate should be based on the strengths of the players available to the rugby coach and an assessment of the opposition. Certainly, where there is little or no depth to the defence, such as inside your own 22m area, then the second approach should be adopted.
As a rule I prefer the second option. It exerts more direct pressure on the opposition and may well force them to move away from their preferred playing style.
However, the player chosen at blindside has to continually assess his position and that of the opposition in order to ensure that he is not outmanoeuvred. A player who charges wildly after the ball without control is easily evaded.
- Constructive or destructive. The role must blend with the rest of the back row.
- What roles do you want your blindside to play. This depends not just on the team needs, but the skills of the flanker.
- Defence from scrums and lineouts. Establish a clear plan of where the blindside flanker defends.
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