Hooper’s performance demonstrates that the role of the ‘Fetcher’ is key


One position has come to dominate international rugby in recent years. Where once the dazzling fly halves, fleet footed centres or try scoring wingers were the stars of the national sides, now the openside flanker is the man on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

The more the professional game has moved forward, the more defences have become almost impregnable. Once the first phase is dealt with there are only really 3 reliable ways to score – Fast ball, Turnover ball, and a sublime piece of skill.

Sublime skill cannot be legislated for, it either happens or it doesn’t, but fast ball and turnover ball can be. They are the domain of the openside, the man whose remit is essentially find ball, win ball – the faster the better.

If you look at the players in the last few years who have really dominated the game they are ‘fetchers’, the breed of openside who’s core skills are turning over the ball and breakdown craft, Richie McCaw, David Pocock, Heinrich Brussow (when fit), Sam Warburton and now Justin Tipuric, even Ross Rennie of Scotland.

Look at South Africa in the recent Rugby Championship. In poor form at the start of the tournament, they had picked Marcell Coetzee at openside (6 in South Africa). Coetzee is a prodigious talent, a tough tackling, no nonsense abrasive South African tyro, but a fetcher he is not.

Head Coach Heyeneke Meyer recognised this, and despite much criticism of his decision, he dropped Coetzee and brought in Francois Louw of Bath, a genuine fetcher.

Lo and behold South Africa’s performances improved with Louw earning rave reviews. I could go into why he was so key but that is a whole article in itself, safe to say if you rely on a kicking game like South Africa do, then being able to win the ball back is pretty important.

So to yesterday’s game, England v Australia. Much was made of the fact that with so many injuries for Australia, including the influential Pocock at 7, that England had to win. It was a fair point really, but it failed to account for Michael Hooper, man of the match as Australia won 20-14.

Hooper like Pocock is a fetcher, and he was magnificent, turning over the ball and winning penalties at key moments when he could, and slowing it down so that England’s attack was stifled when he couldn’t.

England simply couldn’t compete with that quality and technique on the floor. Chris Robshaw is a fine, fine player, he oozes class and leadership and is Stuart Lancaster’s embodiment on the pitch, but an out and out openside he is not.

This is no jumping on any bandwagon, it has been the case for years, indeed I even wrote about it during the June internationals, but the fact is that against the top sides in the world you need a player whose focus is simply to either win the ball or a penalty or failing that to slow the opposition possession down.

Robshaw is improving in that area, but the fact is that his best playing skills are his tackling, his ability always to be in the right place, his unseen work and simply the amount of work he gets through, in short, the skills of a top class blindside.

This is not a criticism of Robshaw, far from it, really it is a praising of the fact that his form is and has been so good that his inclusion in the England team and then as captain were and are unquestionable. It is to his credit that with such a collection of good 6’s he is the one with the range of skills and ability to have been selected at 7.

Not since Neil Back though have England consistently selected an out and out openside, and the simple fact is that to compete right at the very top of the international game you need to have a top class genuine openside.

It is time then for England to select an out and out 7, or at the very least to get one in the senior squad to let them develop and get some international experience. Right now there isn’t a single out and out 7 in the EPS. Maybe Staurt Lancaster feels there isn’t anyone good enough, fair enough, but is it not worth trying out the likes of Armitage, Saull, Kvesic even?

That does not mean drop Robshaw though, move him to 6. He is a class player and the leader of this England side, he is a man that people will follow and so they should because he’s going in the right direction. Not only that, but I believe he’s the best option there too, and he has the opportunity to become this generations Richard Hill (a man who also began his England career, and indeed Lions career, at 7).

The response when I saw this is often: “What about Croft and Wood and even Johnson?” Well my answer is that they’re all good players, players who deserve to play, but the fact is that in international rugby good players get left out.

In 2003 England had Joe Worsley, Martin Corry, Lewis Moody, Mike Catt, Jason Leonard, Danny Grewcock and Kyran Bracken, among others, who were not in the starting XV. They had Simon Shaw not even in the original squad and Austin Healey, Charlie Hodgson and Graham Rowntree who never got to go to that World Cup at all.

Good players get left out and they get left out because you can’t play everyone and because sometimes picking the best team is more important than picking the best players.

Most importantly though, play players in a position where they can extract the absolute maximum of their ability.

Move Robshaw to 6, bring in a fetcher and lets just see what happens.

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