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Lions Changing Roles: Flankers

Lions Changing Roles: Flankers

Perhaps no players are asked to do more on field than flankers and from a British & Irish Lions perspective they have played a leading role throughout the years.

"The principles were to be in the right place at the right time, all of the time."

Perhaps no players are asked to do more on field than flankers and from a British & Irish Lions perspective they have played a leading role throughout the years.

Whether it’s getting their head stuck into the breakdown, tackling everything in sight, or popping up on the shoulder of outside backs, a good flanker has to be prepared to run and never stop.

Traditionally split between blindside and openside – the distinction between the two roles has blurred slightly as the game evolves.

Irishman Fergus Slattery was one of the pre-eminent examples of the latter, touring with the Lions in 1971 and 1974, and recalls his role.

He said: “I was an openside and the responsibility was to support the backs in defence and in attack. The principles were to be in the right place at the right time, all of the time and understanding how you get yourself into the right place at the right time.

“That requires pace and stamina if you’re trying to do it all the time. You’re trying to get into the position where backs are because they are the guys generally scoring the tries. Pace, agility and stamina all would have been key elements.

“But that’s only part of it, the most important part is knowing how to get there. It’s a little bit like if you’re coming off the end of the lineout and you’re defending, you don’t run at the fly-half, you run in front of the fly-half.

“You can close him down if he tries to run but if he passes you’re in line to take the inside centre, and the same with the inside centre to take the second centre or if he pops the ball to the full-back. So what you’re trying to do is stay in the correct position.

“As for the blindside, we would both share the same responsibilities if you take the set-piece. You marked your man in the lineout, and helped your prop forward in the scrum. The only difference really was that the openside was in the loose more.”
 
Beginnings

Specialist positions in the scrum only really came into existence in 1930 from a Lions perspective, but the advent of the openside and blindside is much later.

That was only recorded with certainty in the late 1960s – although there are plenty of players who featured earlier who would have fallen into one category or the other.

Leading the way in terms of most starts for the Lions on the flank is Ireland’s Noel Murphy, who started 34 games over two Tours in 1959 and 1966.

Haydn Morgan, Slattery, Tony Neary and John Taylor trail him by a single start, while Ivor Jones scored 71 points from eight tries, 17 conversions, three penalty goals and one drop goal in 19 starts on the flank.

While 17 different flankers have skippered the Lions in all, only two have done it in Tests, Calder in 1989 and Sam Warburton three years ago in Australia.
 
Noel Murphy (1959, 1966)
 
He may have preceded the common usage of openside and blindside, but Murphy would have been regarded as the latter in the way he played.

A legend of the game who played for both Cork Constitution and Garryowen, he is also part of the only grandfather, father, son trio to have represented Ireland at Test level.

He played eight Tests in all for the Lions, more than any other flanker while his involvement with the Lions stretches beyond his playing days.

Murphy coached the side on their 1980 Tour to South Africa, and has since gone on to be a major figure in rugby administration.
 
John Taylor (1968, 1971)
 
One of Fergus Slattery’s back-row colleagues in 1971, Welshman Taylor made a big impact on his second Lions Tour starting all four Tests.

Conspicuous through his wild hair and all-action game, Taylor helped the Lions to an historic series victory over the All Blacks.

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From a Wales perspective Taylor is perhaps best-remembered for his last-gasp conversion against Scotland in the Five Nations in 1971, when he filled in for Barry John and won the game.

After retiring he moved into the media, and was a leading commentator, including England’s World Cup win against Australia in 2003.
 
Fergus Slattery (1971, 1974)
 
One of the great openside flankers, Slattery was revered for his displays with the Lions in 1971 and 1974, helping secure series victories both in New Zealand and South Africa.

For Slattery the role of the flanker was more defensive than attacking, even if he would also regularly pop up running support lines for his backs.

He explains: “You could argue that it’s 50/50 but I’d say the defensive role is bigger than the attacking role in most games.

“Obviously when you are playing with a side that are on top, the ability to attack is much greater.”

From a defensive standpoint, Slattery was also one of the first to try to tackle above the waist. While it requires greater accuracy, the Irishman felt that was the best way for a defender to win the ball at that time.

He added: “I’d try to tackle the ball as well as the player so that they couldn’t just pass it along. If you tackled someone and they passed, you’d finished even at best. If you tackled the ball as well, you’d fall onto their side and hope your teammates could win it back.

“You took some punishment for it, but that was part of your job then.”
 
Finlay Calder (1989)

 
An openside in the mould of Slattery, Calder was the first Lions flanker to captain the side in a Test, leading them to a series victory over Australia in 1989.

That Lions side became the first ever to come back from losing the first Test to win the series, with Calder’s leadership one of the main factors.

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Twin brother Jim also played for Scotland and the Lions, although curiously their careers never overlapped, with Jim’s last cap coming in 1985, the year before Finlay’s debut.

Highly-regarded for his ability to read the game, Calder is an example of the importance of being in the right place at the right time.
 
Richard Hill (1997, 2001, 2005)
 
One of the most underrated players of his generation, Hill made his name as a blindside, but it was as an openside that he first broke onto the scene with the Lions in 1997.

One of Jim Telfer’s bold moves as forwards coach, Hill helped the Lions to series victory over the World Champion Springboks and went on three Lions Tours in all.

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And Slattery picked him out as one of the best flankers he has seen over the last three decades of watching the game.

He said: “Richard Hill is one of the quality guys who in a lot of ways was very effective and I don’t think it was recognised. 

“His teammates probably recognised it but perhaps Joe public might not have done. He’s a guy of the last few decades who I thought was a really super player.”
 

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