The opensides who have stolen the limelight at RWC
Updated: September 22, 2011, 01:21
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AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) Tasked with arriving first at the breakdown, invariably outnumbered and crouching targets, they scavenge for the ball to protect hard-won advantages, deny opponents opportunities or link play with a backline dependent upon their service.
Openside flankers, breakaways, loosies - they go by a variety of names - but their role is specialized and impossible to master overnight.
Australia's 15-6 loss to Ireland last week which has changed the whole complexion of its Rugby World Cup path revealed their importance.
Losing David Pocock on the morning of the match, Australia gave Ben McCalman his first test start on the openside flank - with predictable results. He was barely sighted as the Irish backrow overwhelmed their counterparts to inspire the biggest upset so far at the event.
While the loss wasn't down to Pocock's absence alone, veteran Australian rugby commentator Gordon Bray echoed the opinions of many.
"The men in gold floundered against the rampant Emerald Army led by their outstanding No. 7, Sean O'Brien,'' he wrote in his newspaper column. "As the match rolled on in the second half, thoughts turned back across the Tasman to the guys left behind. Matt Hodgson and Beau Robinson sprang to mind and so did Phil Waugh.''
Along with Pocock, All Blacks captain Richie McCaw and the Springboks' Heinrich Brussow are the standard bearers in the position, but the World Cup in New Zealand has been illuminated by several lesser lights wearing the No. 7 jersey.
Argentina's Juan Manuel Leguizamon is reminiscent of New Zealand great Josh Kronfeld, headgear pulled low down across the eyes as he bowls over defenders. Samoa's Maurie Fa'asavalu is a powerful threat on the fringes, hard to pull down and to be avoided when running the ball. Namibia's tireless Jacques Burger has a nose befitting a man fearless enough to put his head in harm's way when smashing opponents.
But perhaps the most luminous star on the horizon is Sam Warburton. Adept at pilfering the ball at the breakdown, defensively resilient, superbly fit - and all at the age of 22, Wales' second youngest captain after Gareth Edwards took charge of the team aged 20 in 1968.
"There's three in the world I consider world-class players at the moment, in terms of Pocock, McCaw and Brussow, and I would rate Warburton as well in that category,'' Wales coach Warren Gatland said on the eve of the tournament. "I think people haven't seen a lot of Sam Warburton but I think he will create an impact, hopefully after a few games at this World Cup.''
He did just that.
Going head to head against Brussow in Wales' opening match, Warburton won the man-of-the-match award for helping his team win 60 percent of possession as it came within two points of beating defending world champion South Africa for only the second time in 105 years.
Warburton was at the forefront again in the must-win match against Samoa. Having already lost No. 6 Dan Lydiate to injury early in the match, the Welsh trailed 10-6 at halftime and about to run into a strong headwind against a team they had never beaten at the World Cup.
"At halftime I asked the boys if they could keep them to three points and they all said yes,'' Wales defense coach Shaun Edwards said. "But the captain said no, he wanted zero points.''
Wales responded, winning 17-10 after making 142 tackles in the match and Warburton stealing the last of the team's six turnovers in the final minute to deny Samoa any chance of snatching a draw.
"To keep them to zero against that wind, that was a pretty sterling effort,'' Edwards said.
Wales is currently on a collision course to meet Ireland in the quarterfinals, likely adding O'Brien to the list of Warburton's direct rivals. But only because Irish openside flanker David Wallace was injured before the tournament, creating a vacancy in the green No. 7 shirt.
The 24-year-old O'Brien, however, is a prototype of the new breed of loose forward.
"I'm comfortable in all three positions in the back row,'' he said. "It doesn't bother me where I play.''