6 Blindside Flanker

I’m going to be fairly lazy here and copy and paste Planet Rugbys shortlist for the best Blindside Flanker of the professional era.

Planet Rugby’s Greatest Professional XV: Blindside flanker

Planet Rugby’s Greatest Professional XV: Blindside flanker

Nominees:

Richard Hill (76 caps, 12 tries, 1 World Cup)

Juan Smith (70 caps, 12 tries, 1 World Cup)

Jerome Kaino (81 caps, 12 tries, 2 World Cups)

Michael Leitch (68 caps, 19 tries)

Blindside flanker was one of the toughest positions to shortlist, complicated of course by the fact that South Africa and France number their big flankers as seven whilst the rest of the world uses six. Southern hemisphere readers doubtless will rage about the omission of Jerry Collins, Owen Finnegan and a current great, Pieter-Steph du Toit. Europeans, of course, will shout loudly over the absence of Julien Bonnaire, Dan Lydiate and Mamuka Gorgodze, but we’re happy that our quartet are the most influential we’ve seen.

Richard Hill is arguably the most effective forward in the history of professional rugby. A stoical genius of the dark arts of forward play but blessed with power and pace alike, Eddie Jones described him as the glue that held England together. Zinzan Brooke once remarked, when asked to pick a World XV, “First, I’d ask Hilly where he fancied playing and pick the rest of the back-row around him!” Equally adept at number eight, open or blindside, it was Jack Rowell’s obsession with finding a big seven to fill the boots of Peter Winterbottom that led Hill to his first cap in 1997. The following season a substitution versus New Zealand created a back-row of Hill, Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio, who became known collectively as the Holy Trinity and were inarguably one of the greatest loose trios in the history of the game.

Hill’s effectiveness in both an England and British and Irish Lions shirt saw him named on the blindside of the official Lions All Time XV and again, in the official 2019 Rugby World Cup Greatest XV. The peerless accuracy of Hill’s performances is characterised by the fact that in 364 professional matches, he has never received a single yellow or red card. A cruel knee injury decimated the latter stages of his career, but for seven glorious years, the rugby world sang loudly the praises of their favourite unsung hero.

Juan Smith was a silken carrier and thunderous tackler for 11 years in the Springbok shirt. One of South Africa’s most consistent forwards, his all-round play made him a regular fixture in the back-row during their victory in the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Blessed with an all-round skill-set he fused pacey running and bone-crunching defence with incredible lineout skills, making him an all-conditions player, just as effective in the damp of the northern hemisphere as he was in the heat of Bloemfontein. Smith’s game was built upon the mobility his slim frame offered, but after 2009, when he featured in all three Tests for South Africa against the British & Irish Lions as the Springboks won the series 2-1, a succession of injuries plus the death of his father conspired to rule him out of a year of international rugby.

Injury woes continued to plague him, with surgery on his Achilles tendon sidelining him for much of the 2011 Super Rugby season. He worked hard to get back to fitness to contribute to the Springboks’ defence of the World Cup in New Zealand that year but sadly his body let him down once more. Despite announcing his retirement in 2012, the lure of the Toulon sun took him to France to finish his career in the Riviera, where he quickly became a favourite of the partisan local crowd. At his best, Smith was a master of the back-row, with no visible weakness in any aspect of his game.

Jerome Kaino was one of the most durable players of the professional era. A globetrotting giant, he enjoyed 14 great years for the Blues in Super Rugby followed by a stint in Japan before bringing steel to French rugby in the shirt of Toulouse. Massive hits and carries characterised Kaino, a brute of a man that really was almost an evolution of one of his noted predecessors in the All Black blindside berth, the late, great Collins.

First capped back in 2006, Kaino missed New Zealand’s disastrous 2007 Rugby World Cup through injury, before becoming a key component in their wins in 2011, where he was the All Black Player of the Year, and 2015, where his tries in both the quarter and semi-finals proved crucial in getting his side to the final where he, together with Sam Whitelock and Sonny Bill Williams set the record of 14th consecutive World Cup wins. After the disappointing Lions series in 2017, Kaino headed to France to bolster the fortunes of Toulouse. His impact was immediate and it was under his leadership that the club became French champions for the 20th time in 2019.

Michael Leitch‘s inclusion may surprise many, but based upon one of our stated measurements when we picked these teams, it’s safe to say few have done more for emerging rugby in their own country and in the professional era than the quiet Japanese-qualified flanker from Christchurch. His first cap came in 2008 at the age of 20 and his rangy and pacey performances in the 2011 World Cup saw him win the man-of-the-match award against Tonga and a nomination for the team of the tournament. Appointed the Japanese captain by coach Jones in April 2014, he led them to “the biggest shock in Rugby World Cup history” as part of the team that defeated South Africa in Brighton in 2015, where his 30th minute try set the scene for Japan’s finest rugby moment.

As captain of the host nation in 2019, he enchanted the rugby world with his team’s honesty, honour and passion, breaking down barriers and creating a platform for Japan to succeed in their next stage of evolution. Few sportsmen have had quite the social impact of Leitch in Japan, and he’s honoured with a statue in one of the communal parks in Tokyo, which, during the 2019 World Cup, became a landmark location for the hordes of visiting fans to have their photos taken.

Blindside is the heartbeat of any international team and no heart worked harder or more effectively in professional rugby than that of our choice at six, the peerless Saracen, Richard Hill.