The Blind Side Flanker position has been an interesting one for Australia, not only over the last decade, but in the last few decades. Whereas we’ve usually gone for out and out poachers at Open Side; Strong running Number 8s; Ball playing inside centres, and big kicking fullbacks, we don’t seem to have tied down a ‘typical’ Blind Side Flanker role.
Is it the 3rd (sometimes 4th) lineout option? The work horse? The 2nd flyer? The ball runner? We’ve converted locks, open sides and number 8s. Even a centre. But the pure amount of players used might indicate that we haven’t been entirely successful in filling the role adequately.
From 2000-2009 Australia has used 16 different players in this position, and there are examples of each of these types of players amongst them. They are:
Rocky Elsom (44 starts), Owen Finegan (17), George Smith (14), Matt Cockbain (8), Radike Samo (5), Phil Waugh (5), Dean Mumm (5), Mark Connors (4), David Lyons (4), John Roe (4), Mark Chisholm (4), Hugh McMeniman (3), Jim Williams (2), Richard Brown (2), Daniel Heenan (1), Peter Kimlin (1).
In the end we here at G&GR came up with three fairly hard nosed players, each also particularly skillfull with the ball in hand. Our top three are:
Now this was a tough decision. Smith was always somewhat of a reluctant Blind Side. Not verbally at least, but there was little doubt he always preferred his Open Side role. Ironically it is because of Smith’s immense skills that probably saw him play Blind Side as much as he did. Because he was such a strong tackler, such a capable runner, such a smart player, that he was chosen to fill this troubled role more than other traditional Open Sides. The fact that he started eight times at the back of the scrum shows his true versatility.
I would suggest the reason that the ‘dual flyer’ role, in which Smith was usually partnered with Phil Waugh (in fact only once was he not partnered with Waugh. Against Namibia at the 2003 RWC in which David Croft played his lone test wearing 7), was because Smith was such a brilliant player WHERE EVER he plays.
Smith first wore the 6 jersey in the 2003 World Cup year. 2002 incumbents, Owen Finegan and Matt Cockbain, were injured and coach Eddie Jones was looking for an answer. David Lyons was tried. Dan Heenan pushed through, too quickly in the end, before Smith ended up in the position in the 50 point thrashing at the hand of the All Blacks.
Whilst all the arguments were against the idea – it weakened both our scrum and our lineout, Smith (and indeed Waugh and Lyons) continued to perform exceptionally around the paddock. A few more games there in 2004 and then Smith was done. At blind side at least.
Rocky’s emergence has been long sort after. By far and away the most capped blind side on our list, this is proof that he seems to fill most of the ‘criteria’ I have listed above. He has the size and bulk to be a set piece presence and is in fact an underutilised number 2 jumper in the line out. His mobility is exceptional with surprising pace for his size. He has a level of aggression in defence and at the ruck that we haven’t had since Matty Cockbain, and he is, as we are seeing, an impressive leader of men.
A standout schoolboy player, Elsom spent a couple of years after school developing his game at the Bulldogs in the NRL. On his return to rugby at the Waratahs, most pundits could see the answer to our Blindside flanker role solved.
Despite a few games in which he was ‘rotated’ or ‘rested’ in his debut season of 2005, and then a few games at Number 8 at the start of 2006, Elsom made the 6 jersey is own. Ever since, whenever fit and available, the Wallaby 6 jersey has been synonymous with Rocky.
Until the end of 2008 when he was no longer available. A sabbatical in Ireland on the one hand showcased his talents to most of Europe, but also demonstrated to the Australian Rugby hierarchy how much we needed him as we made eight different changes to the position in the ten tests we played in his absence.
His return has seen him eventually take over the Wallaby leadership as well, where it is hoped that his uncompromising approach on the field begins to rub off on his somewhat green team mates.
Finegan, like a lot of players mentioned in this series, returned from the 1999 RWC a World Champion. However Finegan was more reknowned for his impact from the bench rather than his starting role. Who could forget his amazing try in that World Cup Final? So come the year 2000 he had a lot to prove.
Unfortunately for him, he didn’t feature. For various reasons he failed to play a single test that year, as the likes of Jim Williams, Toutai Kefu and Mark Connors shared in that ‘impact player’ role. But that would all change in 2001.
2001 was the year of the Melon. His form for the Brumbies meant he HAD to be picked for the Wallabies. He was such a smart player, often (sometimes fairly?) considered lazy, but he was a real danger man that opposition coaches and players alike knew they had to consider. So when the Lions toured with the likes of Richard Hill, Lawrence Dallaglio, Neil Back, Scott Quinnell and Colin Charvis in there backrow, Australia went looking for a physical presence.
What they found was Owen Finegan. And what he provided was, not just a series, but a season of quality. Whilst Finegan’s deftness remained, as evidenced in his set up of Matt Burke’s try in the 2nd test, it was his aggression and work in tight that was really of immense value to the Wallabies.
The Lions form continued into the Tri-Nations and Bledisloe Cup so much so that Finegan finished the year as the Wallaby Player of the Year. Just two years later, however, he was somewhat controversially omitted from the Rugby World Cup squad and would not play test football again.
So they are our three. It was very close between Cockbain and Smith in the end, but in my eyes Smith did more to make the position his, this decade, than Cockbain was able to do. But what do you think? Are there any other realistic contenders? Let us know in the vote below and by leaving a comment here or on the Blog.