Shirt 7: Openside Flanker

Again I’m being lazy and copying over the Planet Rugby article.

Planet Rugby’s Greatest Professional XV: Openside flanker

 

Planet Rugby’s Greatest Professional XV: Openside flanker

Nominees:

George Smith (111 caps, 9 tries)

Michael Hooper (99 caps, 19 tries)

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Richie McCaw (148 caps, 27 tries, 2 World Cups)

Thierry Dusautoir (80 caps, 6 tries)

Narrowing down our shortlist to just these four was nigh on impossible and it’s with regret that three titans of openside play, David Pocock, Neil Back and Schalk Burger didn’t make our shortlist. No room either for the outstanding talents of Josh Kronfeld, Sam Warburton, Sean O’Brien, Justin Tipuric or Serge Betsen, which underlines the quality of our quartet of breakaways, but we’re sure you’ll enjoy debating those we included as well as those we were forced to omit.

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George Smith has succeeded in every rugby environment he’s played, whether it be Super Rugby, Japan, France or in the Premiership. By modern standards a small flanker, but able to play at blindside or eight at even the highest level, Eddie Jones once described Smith as the most talented player he’d ever coached. One of the handful of players that made his international bow the same season as his first-class debut, the flanker’s career spans a staggering 20 years of the professional game, a testimony to his fitness, passion and durability.

Smith’s game is characterised by his ability to clamp over the ball in rucks together with a tireless workrate. His performances in the second and third Lions Tests of 2001 earmarked him for greatness and he switched to blindside flanker in 2003, starting all seven of Australia’s Rugby World Cup games, culminating with the final defeat to England. It seems astonishing that for a man who has played within the last 12 months, that his last full season as a Wallaby was in 2009, but he made a cameo return to the Green and Gold in 2013 for the deciding British and Irish Lions Test.

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Michael Hooper is our second Australian to get a nomination in this position, showing how the hard grounds Down Under assist with developing the openside’s classic skills. Out of all our nominees, Hooper is the most classic seven, an absolute livewire of a player, who uses his pace and handling to support in the wide channels, his wiriness to break through rucks and his size to get under jackallers at the ruck, allowing him to secure turnover after turnover for Australia. Following his boyhood hero, Smith, into both the Wallabies and the Brumbies openside shirts, his early career duel with Pocock forged into a world class partnership as Pocock’s continued knee issues slowed his pace, moving him to six or eight with Hooper nailing down the seven shirt.

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In 2014, Hooper succeeded Stephen Moore as Wallabies skipper at the age of 22, and in 2015, captained his team to a final loss in the Rugby World Cup, a showing that led him in 2016 to be awarded the John Eales Medal, the fourth player to have won it a second time. With Australian Rugby currently in disarray, Hooper is the one shining constant of excellence and his conduct through the recent issues his governing body has faced shows the maturity and leadership of the flying Wallaby flanker.

Richie McCaw is an all-time great of rugby. His match influence was so great that when facing the All Blacks, McCaw’s skill at the breakdown made opposition players feel a suffocating blanket had been placed on their game. No single player has more caps, more tries as a forward, more games as a captain and better long-term win rate than this icon of the game. To list McCaw’s achievements and medals does the great man something of an injustice but two World Cups, World Rugby Player of Year twice, New Zealand Sportsman of the Year, umpteen Super Rugby and Rugby Championship medals; well let’s just say his trophy cabinet splits at the seams.

But above all, it was his drive, his determination to improve as a player and also to improve the game itself that were the things that characterised his tenure in rugby. As his great team-mate, Kieran Read once observed: “If I could keep up with Richie’s shadow, I knew I was fit. His mindset and the way he could push himself to places no one could follow was one of the most extraordinary things I witnessed.” McCaw was a machine – a brilliant, talented rugby machine. If any single player summed up our opening phrase “All-Time Great” it is he. For us, the most complete forward the game has ever witnessed bar none.

Thierry Dusautoir was an armour-plated tank of a flanker whose tackle count and workrate was the equal of McCaw himself. Pivotal in France’s 2007 win in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final at Cardiff in 2007, the All Blacks were suffocated by Dusautoir’s performance in the openside berth as the Toulouse flank smashed an incredible 38 carriers that evening. Dusautoir captained France to the 2011 World Cup Final and put in another of the great personal displays in which he scored France’s only try and made 22 tackles, for which he received the man-of-the-match award.

One of the few Frenchmen who has beaten all of the four Rugby Championship teams, Dusautoir led France to the knockout rounds of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, where they played against New Zealand in the quarter-finals. Dusautoir announced his retirement from international rugby following the tournament. The Toulouse legend also offered France calm and consistent leadership, something that pulled the often-emotional team together and into the same direction. He is without doubt one of the greats of French rugby and one of the finest exponents of back-row play the modern game has ever seen.

We have three of the best players that the world has ever witnessed and then we have McCaw. There is only going to be one player in our openside shirt for this team, the complete rugby player himself, Richie McCaw