Super Rugby: Top 5 Open-Side Flankers in Super Rugby History

Jeff Cheshire@@jeff_cheshireAnalyst IIMay 15, 2012

Super Rugby: Top 5 Open-Side Flankers in Super Rugby History

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    Super Rugby history has been littered with great open-side flankers. Since the inception of the competition in 1996, every season has seen multiple No. 7s being rated amongst the top players in the competition.

    The role of an open-side flanker can change depending on the makeup of the team he is playing for, and also by looking at his playing preferences. In general though, these men come in two moulds. 

    The first of these is the "scavenger" or "fetcher" type player, who constantly tries make a mess of the opposition's ball and look to steal what ball they can. 

    The other approach is to look for a ball runner, someone who is a good link man in the back line and plays almost like an eighth back. 

    While the top No. 7s of the modern era have begun to develop traits of both types, generally they will fall into one or the other. Neither is necessarily better than the other, it just depends on the strengths of the player and the needs of the team. 

    This list looks at five of the very best of these men in the history of Super Rugby. As with every article in this series, certain rules do apply. These are that a player can only be judged based on Super Rugby form, while each player is only eligible for selection in one position.

5. Rassie Erasmus

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    We begin our list with Rassie Erasmus, possibly the greatest player in the history of the Lions franchise. To younger fans, Erasmus will be best known as a prominent coach in South African rugby, but a decade earlier it was as a player that he made his mark as an outstanding flanker. 

    He was an energetic player, who was capable of making something happen when he popped up in the back line. He was also capable of mixing it at the breakdown, rarely being bettered by his opponent. Add in the fact that he was a strong tackler and there is little else you could look for in an open-side flanker.

    He began his Super Rugby career in 1997 with the Orange Free State Cheetahs in their only year in the competition before the Cheetahs franchise was permanently introduced a decade later. In 1998 he moved to the Cats, where he played for five years. His first two years here weren't happy ones for the team, but in 2000 and 2001 they featured in the competition's semifinals, the times they have featured here in the competition's history. 

    Erasmus played one more year, retiring at the end of the 2002 season. Since his departure, the Cats (now the Lions) have never finished outside of the bottom three, coming in last four times.

4. Josh Kronfeld

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    The greatest Highlanders forward of all time and one of the greatest open-side flankers in the history of rugby, Josh Kronfeld comes in at No. 4 in this week's list. That a player the calibre of Kronfeld comes in this low shows just how great some of the players to where the No. 7 jersey have been, as Kronfeld was indeed one of the biggest superstars of the game in his time.

    He was an outstanding scavenger, affecting turnovers at breakdown time while also a courageous tackler. To go with this, he was a valuable link man and ran well off the shoulders of what was a dangerous Highlanders back line.

    He played five years of Super Rugby, beginning his career in 1996 with the Highlanders and playing with the franchise until 2000. The first two years of these saw the team struggle, but 1998 saw the start of a golden era in Highlanders rugby of which Kronfeld was a key member. In this year, they were semifinalists before being controversially beaten by the Blues.

    The next season saw them become one of only two teams to travel to South Africa and win a semifinal final, but were tripped up by the Crusaders at the final hurdle, finishing runners-up.

    In his final season with the team, the Highlanders were beaten semifinalists.

3. George Smith

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    At the peak of his powers, George Smith was one of the few men who could claim to be an equal to that of the great Richie McCaw. In a long and distinguished career with the Brumbies, he became known for his outstanding work at the breakdown, his fearless defence and his characteristic long hair.

    His best skill came in his ability to create turnovers at ruck time, constantly proving a thorn in the side of his opposition. He possessed great strength over the ball, but was also one of the fastest players around the field, giving him an extra split-second to get his hands on the ball before the ruck formed.

    He played 122 between 2000 and 2010 for the Brumbies, being one of the more influential members of their championship-winning teams of 2001 and 2004.

2. Michael Jones

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    Michael Jones was quite simply the most well-rounded open-side flanker of all time. He was a devastating tackler and could scavenge at the breakdown, but also possessed athleticism rarely seen in a forward and had a brilliant skill set. In fact, he wouldn't have looked out of place in the back line at the highest level.

    Despite all of this, he finds himself at No. 2 on this list. As with many of the greats of the early years of Super Rugby, his best years were behind him by the time of the inception of the Super 12 in 1996.

    He still played some extraordinary rugby with the Blues however and fully justifies his spot amongst the competition's all-time elite.

    Throughout his career, he played all three loose forward positions, particularly on both sides of the scrum developing late as a blind-side flanker proving very effective here. But it was as an open-side flanker that he was best known and consequently is where he is listed in this series.

    His influence on the early Blues teams was enormous. These were teams filled with superstars, but Jones always shone through as one of the very best. He won two championships in 1996 and 1997, finishing runner-up in 1998.

    He retired after the 1999 season at the age of 34 as a legend of the game.

1. Richie McCaw

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    The greatest of all Super Rugby open-side flankers and possibly the greatest Super Rugby player, period. Richie McCaw has been one of the most dominant players in the game for the past decade, proving influential in every game he takes part in.

    His rise to stardom was as meteoric as any player in the history of the game. He was something of an unknown at the end of the 2001 Super 12 season and became one of the most talked about players in the world by the start of the 2002 season. 

    At the breakdown, his skills are unparalleled, creating turnovers only he can create. His tackling ability is as good as anyone, always featuring amongst the leaders in tackles made during a game. 

    It was through these skills that saw him make his name, but as his career continued, he developed a running game and became a prominent ball runner. He also became an inspirational leader, captaining the Crusaders from 2005 through until 2011.

    Often players are talked about as being great if they don't have bad games, but McCaw takes this to a new level. Not only does he not have bad games, he rarely doesn't have a good game. In many cases it can be said he's worth seven points himself.

    Since 2001, McCaw has amassed over 100 caps for the Crusaders. In this time he has won four championships in 2002, 2005, 2006 and 2008, while finishing runner-up in 2003, 2004 and 2011.

    Even more impressively, since McCaw has become a regular for the Crusaders they have never failed to qualify for the playoffs, truly an impressive feat.