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Loose forward leaders
By Richard Clifton
Is it just me who's noticed that the captain for each of the Six Nations teams is a forward this year? Not only that, but five of the six are back-row forwards. And I'm sure if push came to shove, Pascal PapÃ© would be happy to slide back from second row (which lock wouldn't? - I'm sure all second rows have aspirations of being-back row heroes).
I'm beginning to wonder if this is a trend now in our modern, professional era. Can it be because the loose forward is most likely to be closest to the action and right in the thick of it? I suspect as much. In days gone by, it was usually the fly-half who was the general, directing play from the safety of his position behind the firing line and politely discussing decisions that the referee had made. All jolly nice. Nowadays though, coaches seem to prefer a more pragmatic leader, a grunt, fighting in the trenches. We've even had a few front-row forwards as captain, Phil Kearns & Sean Fitzpatrick to name just two. However, I can't seem to recall any props. Sorry props, please correct me if you can. I suspect the coal-face isn't the place to call the shots from.
It seems obvious to me that the players who are most likely to give penalties away are the forwards. They're in the thick of it and involved in all the set pieces and nearly all of the rucks and mauls. Now, to me, it appears that these places are where most of the penalties are given away. Anyone disagree? If you make a forward your captain, will this influence the decision of the referee and have a bearing on the penalty count?
It's not only the Six Nations sides either who employ a piano-shifter as a captain. Who can ignore New Zealand - captained by the magnificent Richie McCaw! Until his recent sabbatical, the All Blacks have had a breakaway as skipper for ages. But who steps up to the plate to fill his dynamic boots while McCaw takes a timely rest? None other than, fellow loosey and Number 8, Kieren Reed. I don't think anyone can doubt Reed's ability, but is he the natural replacement as captain of the best side in the world? I suspect as much. What better place to see what's going on than from the base of the scrum, head popping up over the trench line, having a peek a what's happening on the battle field.
Jamie Heaslip and Sergio Parisse both command from the 8-slot at the back of the scrum and I seem to recall that Warburton, Robshaw and Brown have all packed down at 8 for club, if not country. So is Number 8 the ideal position to captain a side from? I think it might well be.
Let's look at some more back-row forwards. If Pascal Pape was not skippering Les Blues, then it would be Thierry Dusautoir... hmmm... another flanker. And not to be forgotten, are Ryan Jones and Michael Owen, both versatile, past Welsh captains. I'm sure in Sam Warburton's absence, the skipper's armband would return to Ryan Jones. Anyone else? Lewis Moody - if ever there was a man likely to be the subject of the referee's wrath, it was old Mad Dog himself. But make him your captain and watch the rub of the green change. Dallaglio. He played across all three back-row positions for country and skippered on numerous occasions. But, we have to come back to the great Richie McCaw. Was there ever a man who lived at the firing line, causing referees to pause or re-think their decisions? The man was so on the edge that the offside line seemed to move in his favour most of the time. How many times have referees decided to caution rather than penalise the softly-spoken man? What a man, though! Best of luck with the rehab, mate.
However, we mustn't forget the odd one out. Poor old Pascal PapÃ©. The only second row of our Six Nations mix, stuck in the boiler room. But he shouldn't worry, because there once was another second row forward who captained his country. Who remembers when Martin Johnson was made captain of England? Genius! Pick the biggest, ugliest bloke to tower over the ref saying, "me, Sir?" That's exactly what the Lions management decided back in '97 when Johnson was chosen to skipper the famous touring side, even before being picked to captain his own country. Only then, it was the opposition skipper he was required to tower over (and thus intimidate) at the coin toss before coming out onto the field, not the ref this time (although I'm sure that point was not lost either).
But, enough of those second-row titans, I digress. Picking an open-side wing forward as the team representative is like choosing the naughty boy in the class to talk to teacher. But everyone seems to be at it. Is it because the ref is less likely to penalise the captain? Again, I think it is, and I'm going to stick my neck out again by saying it's the open-side flanker who's most likely to get pinged during a game (I know I usually did). So by choosing a forward to captain your side, is it a positional move, or an attempt to influence the penalty count? And if all sides have a forward as skipper, will that affect the game? I wonder what our better halves have to say.
Come on backs, get involved - your country needs you!