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Seven – the new 10?

It is becoming more and more apparent that the Openside Flanker is becoming the most important player for almost every international side. Watching Scotland’s dramatic and historic 9-6 victory over Australia this morning it was noticible that the best player on either side was in the seven shirt, and that both sides finished the game playing with two sevens.

Scotland had picked openside John Barclay at 8 meaning that along with Ross Rennie at 7 they would be able to counter the superhuman efforts of David Pocock for Australia. Pocock was still comfortably Australia’s best player, securing a couple of memorable turnovers, but such was the impact of Rennie and Barclay operating together that Australia were forced to bring on Michael Hooper the Brumbies openside to help Pocock counter the Scottish duo.In all, Rennie made 24 tackles and did not miss a single one, while he worked excellently with Barclay each waiting to pounce for the ball while the other made the tackle.

In the modern game, with defences being so tough and attacking teams rarely yielding possesion easily, it is becoming increasingly important to be able to gain and retain the ball. The breakdown is refereed more strictly than it was a few years ago, and so canny operators who can push the limit just the right amount are at a premium like never before.

This is why we see a trend of opensides being more talked about than ever before, and when you think of the outstanding players for each nation in recent years the openside is neveer far from the front. Think McCaw with New Zealand, Warburton with Wales, Dusautoir with France, O’Brien of Ireland, Brussow or Burger with South Africa and of course Pocock with Australia.

It is, in my view, one of the major reasons for England’s poor form by their standards since the Clive Woodward era. England have consistently been playing with what you might term 6 and a half’s, Moody, Worsley, Robshaw, all excellent players worthy of international rugby, but not genuine opensides.

One of the major criticisms of England’s play has been that it is often too slow and with too much kicking. One of the solutions to that problem is the picking of a proper 7, someone who is first at the breakdown creating the kind of quick ball from which exciting attacking play can blossom.

It is also noteworthy that a growing number of these opensides are becoming their countries captains. Conventional wisdom is that this is mad as your 7 is rarely likely to be a natural ally of the referee, but the it is becoming increasingly apparent that coaches see the example set by their seven of putting their body on the line and sacrificing their own safety for the good of the team and they think ‘that is the man I want my players to follow’.

Where once the fly-half was the main man in any team, we are in the middle of an era where the Openside is, leading us towards the conclusion that 7 is the new 10.

Mind you, Greig Laidlaw may have a word or two to say about that though. After all, neither Rennie nor Barclay had to stand up and knock over the winning points in the face of a howling gale and driving rain.

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