The England National Rugby Team finds itself with a gaping hole in one of the most important positions on the field: the openside flanker. Outside of an injury-prone Lewis Moody, England lacks proven internationals at this crucial position.
For anyone who is unsure of what the role of the openside flanker is, he is usually the smaller, faster flanker, responsible for covering the larger side of the field at the scrum. He has to be a fearless defender and a solid ball carrier, as well as being talented at the breakdown.
This area is the most important of an openside's duties. A true openside is the one "competing" at the breakdown for the ball in a number of ways, not necessarily legally. New Zealand’s Richie McCaw is one of the best at this, not only turning the ball over, but not getting caught using all sorts of nefarious tricks to steal the ball back.
England currently lack this sort of player when Lewis Moody is injured. Moody is a player capable of doing all of these things, but he is too often injured to be relied upon as the primary option. For England to be capable of taking on the tougher northern hemisphere sides, let alone the tougher Tri-Nations sides, they need consistent play at this position.
There are a number of solutions to this. The first is to try other options at No. 7. The issue here is the number of players who play at a high enough level in order to play international rugby for England. Hendre Fourie has had a few games in an England shirt but is not really an international seven, having been hampered by injuries for much of his recent career, and at 32 he is not a long-term option either.
Tom Rees would have the job held down but has been beleaguered by injuries since breaking out onto the scene for London Wasps. One can only imagine the player he could have been, having gone almost toe to toe with Richie McCaw on the 2008 tour of New Zealand as well as being considered as a potential captain. At 27, one can only hope his form picks up and the injury bug stays away, even if just for a short while, so as to let us see what he can really do.
Steffon Armitage has never been given much of a chance to show what he can do for England. His size makes him a dangerous ball carrier and gives England bulk in rucks and mauls. However, in his appearances at club level for London Irish, he has played solidly and looked good at the breakdown as well as carrying the ball.
Another short-term option is to convert a blindside or No. 8 to the position. This truly is a short- term solution, as each position in the back row has different responsibilities. Blindsides and No. 8's are very similar in size. They are both big ball carriers going forward and often jump in lineouts. In defense, they are meant to make tackle after tackle, knocking the attackers backwards. While opensides do this as well, the difference is often in terms of size and speed.
Blindsides are often the biggest of the back row, as they are required to fill a narrow channel off of the side of the scrum. This often comes at the expense of speed, which is required for an openside, who can have large expanses to cover. A quick comparison of size and weight give an idea of the difference.
Tom Croft, a blindside, is 6'6" and over 18 stone. Lewis Moody is 6'3" and 16 stone. As you can see, the size gulf is relatively large between the two positions. Selecting other players out of position could be shown up against top opensides such as McCaw, Schalk Burger or Stephen Ferris.
The final solution is to turn to youth. There are plenty of blindside flankers being developed in the English game, but few opensides. This is in part due to an emphasis placed in England upon having size in the pack, often at the expense of speed and guile. However, there are two potential Test sevens currently in the top two tiers of English domestic rugby: Calum Clark of Northampton and Matt Kvesic of Worcester.
Clark recently moved to Northampton and has immediately found himself thrust into the No. 7 shirt. Composed on the field, Clark is young and makes mistakes at times, but were he to receive a full Test cap he would be able to seek comfort in the sheer number of Saints within the England set up.
Kvesic, however, has not seen much starting time in the Premiership. However, he did shine at the 2011 IRB Junior World Championships, with the England side reaching the final. Kvesic has good hands, good speed, an incredible work rate, is intelligent at the breakdown and seems to be a born leader, having previously captained the England Under 18’s. Kvesic also fits the prototypical build of an openside flanker at 6’1” and 16 stone, five lbs. If Worcester keeps giving him regular first team rugby, we could be seeing a potential starter for years to come.
England will have to look to Clark and Kvesic to come good in order for England to have the seven spot locked down. However, this will still take a couple of years as they develop. Armitage and Moody could be potential stop gaps at the position before one of the younger players takes over the spot. This will be crucial if England wish to retain their status as a top Test rugby nation.