“Number on a jersey doesn’t always represent the role fulfilled”

My email went off again during a stream. It made a change from going off during a podcast recording after I forget to close the mail program, again, so that at least was a welcome surprise. I love receiving a non-spam email so when I saw that this email had a real person’s name attached rather than Jack from Have You Considered Using Our SEO Service dot com.

I hit that notification a smack. It opened. “We need to accept that Jack O’Donoghue is never going to be a top-level seven,” the email said in the first line. “He just isn’t good enough over the ball for an openside.”  Damn.

I must have received this email, or variants of it, a dozen times over the last few seasons. Sometimes they’ll mix it up with “put Peter O’Mahony in the seven shirt because he’s a better jackal” or the more reasonable “why aren’t we starting Cloete there,” if the Gunshow is fit and available, but not selected. We need to forget about the cliches of what the number on the back used to mean.

2019 Six Nations Championship Round 1, Aviva Stadium, Dublin 2/2/2019 Ireland vs England Ireland’s CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony tackle Billy Vunipola of England Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

An old coach of mine once told me that you can always tell a rugby team’s personality by the makeup of its back row. Depending on the profile of player that you pick at openside, blindside and number eight, you can tailor your team to play a certain way or place emphasis on certain on-field scenarios that you feel you may have an edge in.

Often, the blend comes down to the players you have available to you at any one time. When I talk about a back row blend, what I’m actually talking about is roles. The numbers on the back don’t always mean what they’ve traditionally meant. Every coach has his preferences in certain scenarios.

Ultimately, as a coach, what role do you want your back row to play? Sometimes you want a destroyer at six, a groundhog seven, and a subtle, crafty eight. Then again, depending on what you have to work with, maybe you’ll go with a heavy hitter at eight, an all-rounder six and a half at openside and a half-lock style player on the blindside.

Guinness PRO14, Thomond Park, Limerick 27/4/2019 Munster vs Connacht Connacht’s Tom Daly and CJ Stander of Munster Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

That’s only some of the possible styles and permutations, but you catch my drift. Getting this blend of roles, styles and skillsets right is what will, ultimately, define almost everything that you look to do on the pitch. Jack O’Donoghue might not be a breakdown jackal but he doesn’t need to be to a jackal to be selected in Munster’s back row.

Every back row player is expected to be good at the breakdown these days and that’s a universal truth. You have to be able to clear rucks and you have to be able to make good decisions and slow down entries to the breakdown if necessary. You could stretch that out to every player in the squad full stop, be they forward or back and it would be even truer.

When you bring a guy into your back row, you have to consider the skill sets you want to include there relative to your best players. If O’Mahony is our top-level lineout target and primary defensive lineout player and CJ Stander is our impact defender and primary back row ball carrier, we can use the other jersey to fill in a quality when needed.

Do you need an extra lineout option on both sides of the ball?  Do you need another primary ball carrier? Do you need a line speed defender and wider carrier? Do you need a breakdown specialist? Each of these questions could lead to either Jack O’Donoghue, Tommy O’Donnell or Chris Cloete.

Guinness Summer Series, Aviva Stadium, Dublin 10/8/2019 Ireland vs Italy Ireland’s Tommy O’Donnell and Jordi Murphy ahead of the game Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

And that’s the point. Forget about fetching as the primary task of the player wearing number seven. In fact, when it comes to any player in the pack you might be better off forgetting what you thought you knew about what a number on the back of a shirt means.

One of your second rows could be your primary lineout target and a key defensive breakdown specialist. Another second row might not be a lineout option at all but a key scrummager and ball carrier.

Your number 8 might be a wide carrier and a poacher. Your hooker can be a heavy ball carrier up the middle of the field or a wide carrier, almost like another flanker. My point is that numbers on shirts don’t matter. It’s all about roles and how you fill them. 

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