A Guide to Playing Open Side Flanker
By Didds. (A prop who has secretly yearned for years to play on the flank.)
Open side flanker is arguably the greatest position to play.
Or so said my mate Backie to me one afternoon as we sat on the bus to the club. "Where else" he mused," can one find oneself delving into the depths of a maul one minute, then speeding through a gap, ball in hand heading for the line the next?" And in that one sublime sentence, Backie summed up possibly the most rewarding position on the playing field of rugby union football. Quite why Backie held this opinion I'm not really sure, as he was (is) a major Rugby League supporter, coming from Whitehaven (well someone has to) and as far as I know has never actually ever seen a game of rugby union, let alone played it. We were going to the cricket club at the time.
I wasn't going to argue with him though. Backie had very large hands, and a lot of brothers.
But he wasn't far wrong. Open side flanker. Just those words conjure up visions... of Rives, Winterbottom, Dallaglio. Well, maybe not Dallaglio. But what are the skills that are required of a man (or woman) that fills this most glorious of positions?
An open side flanker is really all things to all men; a hard nosed forward, and a silken, swerving back. And there's the rub. He is by definition, crap at both. Neither hard enough to take the real brutal up-front work on, nor quick or skilled enough to tear opposition defenses to shreds in the three-quarters. Enough pace to keep away from the real men, but not enough to join the girls. In one word - a failure. Like all players, way back in the mists of time, the OSF (as I shall refer to the position henceforth) began at an early age being selected by school masters, or club coaches (actually someone else's dad that had some noble concept of putting something back into the game that had given him so many years of pleasure in his own younger years. Well, it had for a fleeting couple of years between school and marriage before that big git of a Welshman had jumped on his ribs in Abertillery one Easter weekend and finished his playing days for ever. And coaching was better than doing the gardening with the missus looking over his shoulder) to play a position that afternoon/morning. It would always be the same. The big, slow kids would be sidelined as forwards; the skinny, quick kids would be cast into the backs. And he would be left standing their all on his own.
"Hmmmmm..." would murmur the adult. "Lets see... seven backs... seven forwards... Open side flanker for you Bloggins Minor." And this scenario would be repeated every week, until eventually masters/coaches no longer told people where to play, everybody had sorted it out. Except for Bloggins Minor that desperately wanted to be a full-back, or a prop, but got hammered by all and sundry if he ever did manage to cajole his way into playing there.
So much for how OSFs ended up as OSFs. What should they do when they are there?
Coaching manuals will probably tritely churn out something like "support, challenge, secure" - they always tritely suggest three pompous descriptions. They might as well say "drink, fart, sleep" because, of course, as described above, the OSF is actually useless as a meaningful player, so he may as well attempt something that is humanly attainable by everyone (except the queen of course. The queen never sleeps. Her crown sticks in her head and keeps her awake). But let's investigate each of these requirements:
Support - in theory, the OSF should be there in support of the ball carrier, ever aware to the opportunity of a quick inside pop-pass to break the defense as the ball-carrier has drawn the tackler. In practice, what really happens is the fly-half thinks, "Shit. That bloody great big number eight is about to nail me something rotten. I know, where's that useless sod of an OSF? He can have it and get smacked into oblivion." The ball then gets popped inside just as the opposition number eight arrives like a runaway juggernaut and hits the OSF with a tackle measured on the Richter scale. Support is consequently what is worn on elbows, knees and less visible places having suffered too many of such mini-Armageddons.
Challenge - in theory, the OSF should be ever present to knock down opposition ball carriers with a ferocious tackle that causes the ball to spill favourably for his own team. In practise, what really happens is that the opposition ball carrier thinks, "Shit. Those backs have an excellent defensive alignment. No way to go outside, so I'll cut back inside. There'll only be some plodding old OSF there, and I can make the ball available again." The player thus tears back inside, lines up the OSF that has foolishly drifted into the gap between the pack and his own fly-half, and hits him with a neatly turned shoulder somewhere near the OSF's mouth. The only challenge realistically attainable is the ability to get up again after the oppo pack have used the OSF as a mat as they have rucked clean over the top.
Secure - in theory, the OSF should be the first to the loose ball, in order to secure it for his own team to make dynamic and telling use of. In practise, what really happens is the ball goes loose, and depending how much time is available, the OSF will either dive on the ball to set up a ruck, or pick it up to form a maul. The end result is always the same however. His own team are so far behind play that he ends up being used as a bathmat as the opposition win hard rucked ball, or as a rag-doll as his hair, balls and fingers are all pulled, squeezed and broken in a (successful) attempt to relieve him of the ball. The only thing worth really securing is some decent medical insurance.
But there are other, less trumpeted facets, to the OSF's position. The emphasis today is increasingly upon open flowing play, where the skills mentioned above come into play, but what of the nitty-gritty of rugby? We should not forget that the OSF is after all, principally a forward. OK, as we have seen, a pretty lightweight and crappy one, but a forward nonetheless. So.... scrummaging. At a scrum, the OSF's job is to keep his prop in, keep the opposition away from his own scrum-half, and/or be lighteningly away to snuff out the opposition attack. Huh!! What he will really do is lean weakly on whilst supporting himself with his free hand on his prop's knee thus disrupting his own prop's balance and ability to strike if the ball is bobbling about in the tunnel. Far from hindering the other scrumhalf by binding at an angle, he will crouch in place allowing all and sundry to waltz around his pathetically dangling leg... or he'll be inspecting his fingernails as the opposition back row perform a blitzkrieg on his fly-half.
What about line-outs? Surely the place for such a star to shine? Leaping like a salmon at the back of the line, ripping the ball after the front catch, or peeling blind from a middle tap and hurtling up the tramlines with wingers and hookers flailing in his wake. Not a bit of it. Front ball takes will be left too late such that the number two jumper is enveloped by the octopus that every opposition team always has hidden somewhere especially for lineouts. Middle ball taps are either knocked accidentally backwards behind the scrumhalf so the team loses twenty yards of territory, the ball, and most of it's winger's limbs trying to retrieve the situation, or the OSF gets stood up in the tackle by their hooker and then has the ignominy of being dumped into touch by the nine stone winger. As for back of the line ball, it will either end up being caught at number five by the opposition, or knocked on into the arms of the other side's scrum-half who has his number eight all ready to take the ball on and batter your fly-half to death. (Serve him right really for using his own OSF as cannon fodder earlier. See above.)
Rucks? Mauls? Less said the better really. Too weak to rip the ball; too puny to hold onto it if caught in possession. Too small to knock a ruck forward, too slight to anchor a shove. Bloody useless in the loose-tight to be honest.
But let us not disregard the OSF's place in broken field play. His secondary role as link man and support is never more perfect in open play with defences torn to ribbons. Ever there to take the scoring pass, or to beat the last man, draw the cover then send a winger or centre away for the try. In his dreams that is. Let us not forget that the OSF is in the forwards because he can't make the grade as a back So he has neither the hands to catch the scoring pass, not the pace or guile put others in perfect positions, or even deliver the ball to them. Knock-ons with the line beckoning.. over-running his ball-carrier... getting caught with the ball in his wrong hand by the cover... or hurling a "pass" yards behind his support, or over his head into touch.
Things don't improve much once the game is over. The OSF will be the man flitting between two huddles - the backs don't want him because he smells of ralgex and linament like all forwards, while the forwards don't want him due his lack of manly strength and inability to drink fourteen pints. It is no wonder then, that so many OSFs retire early and take up reffing... and ironically it is the perfect place for them. After all those years of not being good enough for a proper position, now the OSF has the perfect position. Quick enough to be near play, but not quick enough to be right in the way. Tough enough to stare people down, but not so tough as to not be able to share a joke with the crowd. Indeed... the perfect job for a man that can't run fast, and can't tackle. And no-one's liked him throughout his career anyway, but now at least he has some respect from everyone else.
So that's the open side flanker. The next time you see some poor sap having a nightmare of a game at open side, don't stand there and castigate him. He's doing the best he can.
After all... he's just crap at the game
Disclaimer : The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. And are probably wrong anyway.