I played flank in high school in South Africa and played openside flank when I played for the u20’s at Ballymena rugby club in Northern Ireland. I played as I imagine most South African youngsters did left or right flank so when I got to Ireland I had to relearn my role of being an openside flanker and realised the role is a far more specific job.
“Fundamentally similar to the blindside flanker, the openside equivalent is usually smaller and more agile, with extra pace to provide impetus to attacks” from Talk rugby union
My first rugby hero was Wahl Bartmann. If ever there was a player to display superhero levels of courage and committment it was Bartmann. I thought the man was indestructable. When South Africa were first allowed back into international rugby back in 1992 Bartmann was of course selected. It soon became apparent that Bartmann lacked the pace and skills to play at international level.
I soon forgot about Bartmann when a younger faster more skillful player replaced Bartmann in the Transvaal team. I was at Ellis Park with friends from school and I asked my mate if I could look in his matchday programme because I wanted to know who this blond guy playing at no.6 was. The player was Francois Pienaar.
I had watched most of the games in the 1991 RWC even though South Africa were not allowed to compete in the tournament due to the international cultural and sports boycott because of Apartheid. During this competition I saw that Michael Jones played at no.7 (openside flank).
“Both an openside and blindside flanker get their names from their positions at the scrum. They don’t line up left and right, but rather, their positions depend on where a scrum is on the pitch. An openside will pack down on the side of the scrum that is furthest to the touchline, and is usually the side that teams have the majority of their backline, while the blindside flanker covers the narrower of the two sides.” from Balls.IE
I was aware of this difference from quite early on in my own rugby life. Peter Winterbottom the England opensider was a player I greatly admired. He often left the pitch bloodied and battered and had given every ounce of physical effort he could whilst on the pitch. These openside flankers intrigued me and I have spent a lifetime specifically watching these players on a rugby pitch.
“When defending a scrum, it’s an openside flankers job to get out to the opposition backline as soon as possible, in an attempt to minimise any tackles his outhalf would have to make. Outhalves are traditionally the worst tacklers on a rugby pitch, because their job is to direct a team, not make tackles. Opensides also have to cover number eight picks on their side, or if the scrumhalf decides to go himself, the openside also covers him.” from Balls.IE
I don’t know when or where this role became so specific. Was it during the years when South African rugby was in isolation? A little clue to the development of this position might be in the Kiwi term of wing forward.
“Before it was outlawed in the 1930s, New Zealand used a 2-3-2 scrum formation that used seven forwards and not eight. The wing-forward did not participate in the scrum and would feed the ball in the scrum instead of the half-back.” from the full wiki
South Africa has been slow to accept and incorporate the specifics of openside flanker roles into their rugby. Around 2008 South Africa began buying into the idea of a ‘fetcher’ flank. They had seen the value these players added to a team by watching players like George Smith of Australia, Martin Williams of Wales and of course Richie McCaw of New Zealand.
“The breakdown aspect is the main difference between an openside and blindside flanker. An openside’s job in defense is to get over the ball to try and steal or win a penalty. A good openside will know when there is an opportunity to jackal the ball, and when to back off and keep the defensive line. Players like McCaw, Warburton and Armitage are extremely good over the ball, either stealing it, winning penalties, or slowing opposition attacks down.” Balls.IE
South Africa could see the value this added to their defence but never felt comfortable with taking away from the physical domination of a forward pack that was required to subdue and suffocate by picking a small man at no.6(South Africa is the only country which puts a 6 instead of a 7 on the opensiders top). Heinrich Brussouw contributed to many Springbok victories but Domkrag coaches just didn’t like that he was so small.
“In attack, an openside tasked with the sole responsibility of supporting line breaks. While other back row players are used to carry ball and generate go forward, an openside is often the first player at an attacking breakdown to clean out defensive players, and stop the possibility of a breakdown. They are frequently the first player on the shoulder of an attacker when a linebreak is made, and are frequently thought of as the link player between one phase and the next. Michael Hooper and Justin Tipuric are prime examples of this.” Balls.IE
South Africa have played to a Domkrag gameplan for many many years and what that means is that openside flankers and no.8’s generally carry ball straight into contact off of first phase ball. Like Marcell Coetzee or Schalk Burger whereas a player like Richie McCaw or Michael Hooper would wrap around the backline and then pick a line into space somewhere out in the midfield linking up with the backs. They have the speed and skill set to fit into a backline. Hooper has incredible acceleration and has caught out many defences. It gives width to the game. Coetzee’s and Burger’s tactic would be to run straight at the flyhalf and stepping into space rather than bowling straight into the smaller guy just wouldn’t cross their minds.
Two opensiders that if I looked back in history would have had a huge influence on the modern day attacking game of an openside flanker. Josh Kronfeld of New Zealand who had an incredible engine on him, he seemed to cover huge distances in tireless running of support lines. In the 1995 RWC he scored a few tries doing just this often picking up a pass after Jonah Lomu had caused all kinds of destruction. The other being Laurent Cabannes of France. The French have always had flair, Cabannes’s flair could rival any inside centre the world over. French attacks were very often intiated by this man but as any true no.7 would he was often there to finish it off too. Some would argue that a player already existed that had both these attributes and then some, that man was Michael Jones (the Iceman) of All Black fame.
I was recently incensed when Joel Stransky commented during match commentary that Jaco Kriel doesn’t play to the ball like Francois Louw does. Just because an opensider shows up well in attack does not mean he shirks his work on defence. Jaco Kriel is as modern an opensider as Michael Hooper. I would urge Joel to take a closer look.
There does seem to be a trend of opensiders playing in SA that seem to have learnt their trade by looking at McCaw or Pockock rather than Burger. Players like Roelof Smit, Kwagga Smith and Ruan Lerm of course Jaco Kriel is included in this new breed.
Why don’t South Africa start falling in line with the rest of the rugby world and put a 7 on the back of the opensider. This could be the first step away from the Domkrag era.