With the Rugby World Cup but a matter of months away, Planet Rugby will be taking a deep dive into the various units of a team to measure who has the advantage in the lead-up to the tournament.
We start with the place the game is won and lost, the breakdown kings of the back-row.
5. New Zealand: Scott Barrett, Sam Cane, Ardie Savea
There’s no such thing as a bad All Black back-row – but the biggest issue Ian Foster faces is he’s still not sure of his best trio, with both Dalton Papali’i and a fit Ethan Blackadder, serious contenders on the flank.
Nevertheless, it’s a wonderfully balanced unit in the best traditions of an open and blind configuration, with two primary lineout options, a dog over the ball in Cane and the X-factor of one of the world’s best players in Savea. Rugby intuition is their superpower, and all three are as comfortable in the wide channels with ball in hand as they are with their head in the dark alleyways of the ruck.
How does a ball carrier tackle a tackler?🧐
Ardie Savea: pic.twitter.com/cRNdsWFxOW
— Jared Wright (@jaredwright17) March 25, 2023
A seriously competitive area for New Zealand and a back-row that’s a hair away from being the best.
Strengths: Pace, ball skills, explosiveness, intuition, ability over the ball.
Weaknesses: Can lack sheer carrying bulk.
4. Argentina: Juan Martin Gonzalez, Marcos Kremer, Pablo Matera
If there was an award for the biggest back-row in Test matches, this fantastic Argentine unit would take the prize. The first of our back-rows to play a strict left and right formation on the flank, with Kremer as the carrier and Gonzalez as the jackaler, they underlined their quality in the Rugby Championship last season with wins over the All Blacks and Wallabies, followed by a memorable victory against England at Twickenham.
The importance of Matera cannot be understated as a key distributor down the middle of the pitch, and his cut-back passes resulted in four tries for Los Pumas last year. With all three superb lineout technicians and with 6’7″ 130kg Kremer rated by some as the best defending forward in the game, they subscribe very much to the Springbok theory of size, power and dominance.
We would have been tempted to rank them above South Africa, but in the Rugby Championship, the head-to-head went the way of the Saffers, and there’s also a question over penalty count at times, so for the time being, they’re at fourth.
Expect them to surprise a few in the 2023 Rugby World Cup as Argentina continue their upward trajectory.
Strengths: Sheer size, power, the handling, distribution and IQ of Matera.
Weaknesses: Discipline is a perennial issue, especially for Kremer. Not the fastest around the park compared to some.
3. South Africa: Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Jasper Wiese
Numbering their open and blindside the other way around, the Springbok trio already boasts two world champions in Kolisi and Du Toit. Hugely physical, magnificent and powerful in the set-piece, the counterpoint between the carries of Wiese, the wide support play and leadership of Kolisi and the sheer all-round excellence and lineout presence of Du Toit gives them an all-conditions trio that are capable of completely obliterating their opponents at the breakdown.
And like others in this list, the starting unit has serious support and competition off the bench in the shape of Kwagga Smith, Marco van Staden, Duane Vermeulen, and Franco Mostert (when he’s not locking the scrum) are all proven Test candidates that offer a counterpoint as finishers or can easily step in as starters if required.
It goes without saying that their set-piece is exceptional (they’re Springboks, right?) with both Du Toit and Kolisi lineout options and Wiese a master of the close-quarter maul. In the right conditions and in forward-based encounters, they’re nigh on unstoppable, and it could be that yet again, the Springboks emerge on the rails to shock all at a World Cup.
Strengths: Power, abrasion, more power, low error count.
Weaknesses: Kolisi aside, not the fastest or best with ball in hand in the wide channels.
2. Ireland: Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris
Arguably the very best balanced of our five picks, the Irish trio features the dog and lineout brilliance of O’Mahony, the silky running skills of World Rugby Player of the Year van der Flier and the incredible workrate and footwork of Doris, a rugby magician. They also have the current British and Irish Lions number eight Jack Conan to trot on off the bench to fold a few defenders with his powerful carrying and a secret weapon at lock in Tadhg Beirne, who is equally adept at six and offers a great jackalling counterpoint.
Already Grand Slam winners and world number one, Ireland‘s back-row is at the heart of their running game, with all three players incredibly comfortable on the ball and able to support in phases moves seamlessly, and with Doris providing footwork in carry that any Test winger would be proud of.
O’Mahony is their key player – he provides the grit and grind to contrast with the pace and agility of his teammates – and he’s also one of the finest attackers of opposition lineouts, able to use brilliant footwork over the ground to get up high and challenge.
Our only reservation is sheer physicality – when on the front foot, they’re the best in the world, but on the back foot, do they have the grunt to compete with the behemoths of other nations? We will soon find out.
Strengths: Balance, support play, handling, carrying, line out challenge.
Weaknesses: Have they got the sheer brutality of the Springboks or Los Pumas if the game is tight?
1 France: François Cros, Charles Ollivon, Grégory Alldritt
Despite playing exclusively left and right in formation above the traditional open and blind, with Cros acting as the openside jackaler and Ollivon as the rumbling carrier, France‘s skill balance is quite remarkable, with an absolutely nuclear-grade armoury of back-row weaponry at their disposal.
Some French supporters might prefer the Toulouse wrecking ball Anthony Jelonch (out until August with an ACL injury) at six, but his club teammate Cros’ ability to sweep up mess and provide fast ruck ball was a key component of France’s strong form turnaround in the latter stages of the Six Nations. Just to add more spice into the mix, bench options are deep, with a fit Jelonch, Cameron Woki and Sekou Macalou, all incredible athletes and proven test performers.
It’s balance that is the French superpower; the leadership, intellect and lineout work of Ollivon, a shoo-in for a World XV, the breeze block carrying power and ability over the ball of Alldritt (memorably described by teammate Cyril Baille as the world’s fastest fridge!) and the phenomenal work rate of Cros at the coalface, doing the unsung work and ensuring his hungry backline are fed with fast ball.
🗣 "England in tatters, the French in full sail"
— ITV Rugby (@ITVRugby) March 11, 2023
Do they have a weakness? Form has been an issue with both Ollivon and Alldritt looking jaded and below par early in the tournament, but a lot of that is down to the workload of a Top 14 player – Alldritt had played the most minutes (1225) in European rugby when they played Ireland – but as it stands, we believe this trio is as good as we’ve seen in test rugby for a long time and one that may very well be destined for greatness come October, 28, 2023.
Strengths: Pace, power, grit and skill- a complete unit.
Weaknesses: Have been off form earlier this year, looking physically tired, and there’s still an emotional tendency to drift in and out of tests.
On the subject of balance, the Italian trio of Seb Negri, Michele Lamaro and Lorenzo Cannone bloodied a few noses of the top countries in the Six Nations and are a key part of an improving Azzurri. Down under, if Eddie Jones can find the right man at six to complement the brilliance of Rob Valetini and Michael Hooper, then the Wallabies will have a unit to compete with any team in the World Cup, and finally, if England can ever get Courtney Lawes, Tom Curry and Zach Mercer fully fit, available and on the pitch together, they might very well turn their poor fortunes around.