So the quarter-finals have come and gone, and I’ve given it a week before posting anything in case my next contribution just turned into a long, disappointed diatribe about how poor England were. The World Cup campaign of Johnson’s team was, overall, fairly calamitous, as they failed to make friends on or off the pitch. I, along with the coaching staff, players and a large part of the rugby public, was somehow fooled into thinking that you can win a World Cup playing badly, which of course you can’t. You don’t have to be the best team in tournament; you don’t have to score the most tries; but you can’t play badly and win a World Cup. So England got what they deserved, and the Rugby World Cup is probably richer for it, as teams in better form progress into the semi-finals (with the exception of France, who remain terrible).
Onto the semi-finals then, and the battle of the opensides. It’s always dangerous to focus too much on individuals in what is the ultimate team game, but I agree with a large number of learned commentators who are talking about the semi-finals as direct battles between opposing flankers – Warburton vs Dusautoir and, even more enticingly, Pocock vs McCaw. Whilst it would be an exaggeration to say that these clashes will decide the game, it would be extremely surprising if the winner of each of these clashes were to end up on the losing side.
A good number 7 is, of course, one of the things that England lack. Throughout the tournament, there has been a continuing debate about the value of a genuine openside flanker in the team. This has been prompted by teams such as England and Ireland, both quarter-finalists, who travelled without a first-choice specialist in that position. Originally, I was tempted to reconfigure this debate along the lines of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ numbers 7s. This sees the traditional player as a slightly smaller, very quick player whose speciality is causing problems at the breakdown and slowing down opposition ball (if you want a paradigm of this type of player, you couldn’t find much better than Neil Back). The modern 7, meanwhile, is a player like James Haskell or Sean O’Brien – not necessarily a sneaky operator who gets under opposition bodies at the ruck, but a powerful, mobile jack-of-all-trades who focuses on a high tackle count and puts himself about, without worrying too much about the darker side of the position.
Reading the situation thus, I didn’t take it too seriously when commentators pointed to England’s lack of specialist openside as a weakness. After all, if you look at a position and James Haskell is filling it, there doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem. But it isn’t that players like Haskell and O’Brien aren’t good rugby players or that they don’t try hard enough – it’s that a genuine, ‘traditional’, died-in-the-wool number 7 gives you something that no other player can, even if they have that number on their shirt. The ability to turn over opposition ball, or at least to slow it down, is the defining characteristic of a good openside flanker – and it is something that England, in particular, missed hugely in this World Cup.
The two biggest quarter-finals last week were decided by openside flankers. Ireland vs Wales was a titanic clash which the Welsh eventually won reasonably comfortably. This was in a large part down to Sam Warburton’s success in nullifying the carrying threat of Sean O’Brien, his opposite number. If O’Brien had created the sort of momentum that he has against just about everyone in the last 10 months, Wales would have lost. Instead, the day was carried by Warburton’s tireless tackling (I heard an unconfirmed report that he had made 16 tackles by half-time alone) and his ability to win crucial turnovers when Ireland were camped on the Welsh line (notably in the early stages, when Ireland failed twice to take points having been camped on the Welsh line). O’Brien is a very good flanker but is naturally a 6. Although his freakish strength and mobility mean that he could never be considered a weak link, it is telling that Warburton’s impact ultimately outweighed that of the bigger, more brutal player.
If Warburton’s effect on the Welsh game was considerable, however, then David Pocock’s influence against South Africa was seismic. Somehow, despite having no possession, no territory and a kicking game that resembled an under-16s training exercise, Australia managed to come away with a win. South Africa had 75% territorial domination – 75%! – and yet were unable to convert pressure into points, largely because of Pocock’s work on the back foot. Despite not playing the entire match, the Queensland player made 29 tackles and stole possession 9 times, truly astonishing figures. With the South Africans’ own breakdown specialist, Heinrich Brussow, leaving the field injured in the first half, this was almost certainly the area of the game that went the furthest to deciding the match.
In my mind at least, therefore, this tournament has conclusively demonstrated not only the value of but also the necessity of a talented, specialist number 7 in any world class team. It is no coincidence that Warburton, McCaw, Pocock and Dusautoir (an often under-estimated player) have carried their teams to the semi-finals and it has shown that, however good the replacement is, you cannot swap a 7 for a 6 without losing something from your game. The challenge now for those sides without such a player is to find one and to promote him, quickly. It would take a brave man to drop two of Wallace, Ferris and O’Brien in favour of a less rounded, specialist openside, and the same is true when weighing up Haskell, Wood and Moody. If England are to start a meaningful assault on the top of world rugby, however, they’re going to need to do it with David Seymour, of Sale, or Carl Fearns, of Bath, playing a prominent role in their starting XV.