Ever since former England coach Dick Best said “Neil Back reminds one of a pig farmer – crouched over with his hands firmly in the shit”, openside flankers the world over have always been treated with a little more than just mild suspicion.
It’s a trend that has gathered momentum over the years, where former Springbok coach Jake White once had the temerity to infamously declare that the only “fetchers” he knew were his sons when they were fetching him beer from the fridge.
Fellow ex-Bok coach Heyneke Meyer went a step further and all-but ended Heinrich Brussow’s international career by not picking him at the beginning of his tenure. But not even he went as far as World Rugby, which has steadily rewritten the ruck laws to the point of rubbing out one of the game’s iconic positions.
Along with hooker, tighthead prop, eighthman and flyhalf, openside flank used to be a celebrated position in the game because few people appreciate how tough it is to be a cat burglar operating in the multiple car pile-up that is a ruck in rugby (they don’t call it a breakdown for nothing).
Even though there was always a faint whiff of pig excrement accompanying their best work – because an unspoken definition of being a fetcher is cheating – men like Richie McCaw, George Smith, David Pocock and Brussow turned playing there into rock star territory.
Now the push for rugby to be a spectacle has resulted in laws that make contesting possession by stealing or slowing down ball at the breakdown an undesirable part of the show heavily penalised by referees who want quick ball at all costs.
Consequently, coaches have taken their cue from the likes of Meyer, whose reasoning for leaving Brussow out was that he’d weighed his penalty-to-steal ratio and decided it wasn’t worth the risk. Their solve, as they say in corporate, has been to assign the so-called hybrid loose forwards like Jaco Kriel and Siya Kolisi – guys who are part fetcher and part runner – to the old openside post.
It makes sense because having one guy focus on chasing rucks has three problems: you lose one defender in the process, said chaser of breakdowns has to be sure he will nail them, and in this day of the offloading game, most rucks are in unstructured play, meaning you can’t target them.
As former Bok assistant coach Franco Smith explained last year, everyone is expected to fetch: “Every flank and every eighthman must have the same ability in terms of stealing the ball, slowing down and speeding up rucks. Why have one guy when you can have three doing the same job?
“That way you don’t have to have one guy chasing after breakdowns, you can have three at different spots on the field still contesting and slowing it down. I believe in giving the players the capabilities to do all of that without over-committing to the breakdown.”
That said, the obvious stumbling blocks to Smith’s forward thinking are the fact that not everyone has the mongrel to stay put when an ugly cleaner named Bakkies is bearing down on them at ruck time, and the interpretation of the laws by northern hemisphere referees.
While there’s barely a contest at breakdowns in Super Rugby, it can be an arm wrestle in the northern hemisphere, which means specialists are suddenly required. Two recent examples are England’s successive defeats to Scotland and France.
In both cases they were bullied at the breakdown because neither Chris Robshaw nor Courtney Lawes – versatile as they are – is a natural fetcher. In Scotland’s case they targeted that area by playing two opensides in their loose-trio (John Barclay and Hamish Watson), while the French negated the Poms by refusing to be bullied in contact.
Teams don’t see the need for a specialist openside until their inability to dominate collisions requires someone to speed things up. But as Eddie Jones will tell you, you only find out after the fact that you should have picked one.
So can the lawmakers stop writing pig farmers, er, fetchers, out of the game? It’s a nasty job, but somebody has to do it.