In the last six years the back row has gone from being seen as a superfluous element of the fifteen-man game to being seen as the most critical part of the team, as a result of the dominant play of the likes of Richie McCaw, David Pocock and Heinrich Brussow.
There has been a crucial difference in the way we in the northern hemisphere view the back row compared to the three southern superpowers. Southern back rowers tend to be more dynamic on the field and more successful at managing the referee. A southern hemisphere team will focus on the number 7 openside position and use the number 8 effectively as a cross between a blindside and an openside. Some good examples of this would be the way Richie McCaw has been used as a number 8 by the All Blacks to accommodate Sam Cane at openside, the dynamism of All Black number 8 Kieran Read, and the flexibility of the back row positions as used by the Springboks. A northern hemisphere team will focus on the number 6 blindside position and use the number 8 in a more traditional role at the base of the scrum, as a defender and battering ram. A good example of this would be England’s use of specialist blindsides used across the back row, or, historically, the roles played by the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio and Scott Quinnell. Ireland and England’s first choice back row consists of two specialist blindsides in the flanker positions and only Wales have flirted, albeit accidently, with a southern hemisphere style by playing two specialist opensides in the flanker positions. Regardless of your view of the importance of specialists, Warren Gatland has made it clear that he would ideally play specialists in each position, which had the added advantage of narrowing the options available for the tour.
The Lions have named five second row forwards for the tour and with two starting and one replacement for each match, the number of combinations is considerable. Second rowers, or locks, are described by some as “the engine room”, the players buried in the middle of the scrum doing much of the driving behind the front row. Away from the scrum, the locks are usually the chief ball carriers and the players most likely to clear-out rucks and drive mauls. The most visible job of the second rower is at the lineout, where the height of the locks make them the prime targets for the hooker’s throw.
In 2009 the second row was, by far, the most competitive area within the squad, with all five players excelling and competing for a test place. It was also the only area of the field where no replacements were called up and only one of the five did not receive a test cap.
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With the squad now announced the time has come to take a closer look at those who will be playing for the Lions in a few weeks.
The front row has seen one critical rule change in the last year – there are now three front row replacements on the bench, so the role of the utility prop, he who can play loosehead or tighthead, has been somewhat diminished.
In 2009 the front row was the most important factor in South Africa’s series win. Following some strong performances in the provincial games, the Lions chose a front row combination of Gethin Jenkins, Lee Mears and Phil Vickery to start the match with Matthew Rees and Adam Jones on the bench. The idea was that Mears and Vickery would offer more impact in loose play, but it quickly became apparent that the Springboks were a far superior scrummaging outfit than the provincial teams had been, and the Lions conceded penalty after penalty as the scrum buckled. The game turned around when Matthew Rees and Adam Jones replaced Mears and Vickery but by then it was too late. A week later, the Jenkins / Rees / Jones front row demolished the Boks but in the most brutal of rugby games ever witnessed (which led to a third of the Lions team being admitted to hospital), both props were stretchered off and the scrums became uncontested, denying the Lions the dominance they had, which in turn led to the Boks eventually winning the game.