After watching England sink to two defeats to end the defence of their double Six Nations crown, all I could think of was that they lack balance as a team, especially in the centres and back row.

So what makes a balanced team? In this very brief summary, I will use the Kiwi model, followed by both the All Blacks and our Super Rugby teams, as an example. This isn’t the only model – the Irish are different, and in fact, it may not even be the best model – but it’s the one I know the best.

First, you need a tight five that will execute its core roles in scrum, lineout and as second or third player at the breakdown. That law is universal. But they also should all be to able to catch and pass smoothly and take the right option when they have the ball at that key moment.

That law is universal.

The pack

The All Blacks have your classic balanced loose trio. The 8 with the sharp brain, X-factor skills and outstanding lineout ability. This hasn’t always been the case, but it so at this point in time. The hard-charging, hard tackling enforcer at 6. The breakdown master at 7. All of them excelling at their core roles, but also very good at what their colleagues do.

As a whole, the pack should ideally have a couple of outrageous wide channel experts (2 and 8), raw-boned but skilled front men for their forward pods (Brodie is the master in pod 1), several expert jackals, plenty of dog and plenty of go forward gain line carriers. Apart maybe from the props, the whole pack has both of those qualities in spades.

Dane Coles ranging out wide and running in a try. Photo: Marty Melville
Dane Coles ranging out wide and running in a try.
Photo: Marty Melville

Backline

Each member of the backline has a particular role. The halves must be excellent decision makers and kickers. Nine must keep the game moving by being supremely fit; quick to get to the breakdown and make the decision; quick of pass too. The ten must be able to receive the ball flat and moving, challenge the line and pass well off both hands. And goal kick of course – possibly not our most reliable area.

Aaron Smith going in for a try at the 2015 RWC.
Photo: Matthew Impey

There needs to be ball-carrying backs close enough to run off the halves (this is so important), we use a winger (Williams, Wilson, Kirwin, Jonah, Umaga, Savea, Rieko, Naholo) and especially a 12 – Nonu, SBW, Laumape. To balance the centres, the 13 must make big decisions to organise the wide defence and whether and how feed his outsides (Stanley, Bunce, Conrad, Crotty, ALB). But both centres must also be good at their partner’s job.

To complete the balance, the other wing must be an elusive runner and good with the boot and in the air – Jane, NMS and Dagg were all fullbacks. Then we have a starting fullback who is positionally very sound, a sensible yet adventurous decision maker and runner from the back or as the second pivot if necessary, good under the high ball and in the air. To finish we have the 10/15 reserve who is a genuine second pivot with great X factor from the back.

So that’s a probably too edited summary of the All Black model. Ireland fans – you have a balanced team but how does yours differ? England fans, what are you missing? (I would say ball carriers in both the pack and backs, breakdown ability, someone who can regularly give the outside backs opportunities.) Other nations or clubs – how balanced is your team?

Let’s discuss.

Author: JD Kiwi

JD Kiwi currently lives in northern England, trying to find enough waking hours to work, be a devoted family man, and watch too much rugby. He supports the All Blacks, Chiefs and Waikato but also enjoys watching European rugby.

As a player he was was the shortest lock and slowest pace bowler in New Zealand. His favourite sporting achievement was winning the annual bowling cup for his small town Second XI.

35 COMMENTS

  1. I feel wales are trying to get close to this with the offloading game as well as the hard-hitting back row. Admittedly are backline is nowhere mere that of NZ. It would be interesting to hear who you think is closest to this model.

    • There’s so much to like about what Wales are achieving with all those Pivac coached Scarlets. Who would have thought Samson and AWJ (Ospreys) had those ball skills? I always look to the loosies and centres. The former tick every box – lineout, physicality, breakdown, speed. Centre Parkes has both the carrying and the skill at 12 and wait until JD2 returns. And then the back 3 have the big 11, skilful 14 and wise 15. They are a work in progress, but they definitely have balance.

  2. Interesting in the differing approaches to a balanced team. Here in the NH we don’t like forwards hanging wide so much and we like hookers to carry hard close in and hit breakdowns, we also like our 8’s to be huge- Billy V, Picamoles even Parisse and Dallaglio weren’t allowed out wide. The best England team (2003) had 4 monsters in the tight 5 plus Ben Kay for lineout, 2 very mobile but relatively small flankers and a big no 8 with good hands. The back line pretty much fits your model apart from Wilkinson being less of a running 10 than you would like.

    • Interesting one about the 8. We tend to have the destructive strong man at 6. Your big 8 points as you say points to your narrower attack, but to take your excellent example, the 2003 team was as you say so well balanced, even if it didn’t go wide so often. I loved the back row – how complementary with the big 8, jackel 7 and glue 6! Once again, Greenwood and Tindall. And the mix of outrageous skill and size in the back 3.

  3. JD,

    Nice write up. So, for England, I believe we have balance in certain combinations in the centres. JJ (13) is as good a covering defender as we’ve seen for a while – he leads the rush from his position as well. He’s also quick-footed, fast and has a decent pass. Te’o is a more classic bosh-merchant, and we employ him when we see opportunity to use that type of attack. Farrell is the playmaker/kicker. So, somewhere in there, is a balanced combo, whether we choose to use it.

    The main issue, and the well documented one, is back row balance. There is none, and hasn’t been for a while. We haven’t had a breakdown specialist 7 since Back. We COULD choose one (T Curry, Kvesic, Wilson) but they seem to only get picked on tours to Argentina (and what do you know, we have fast breakdown support). Whilst Robshaw actually won 2 or 3 turnovers against France, he is not a 7. Lawes, by the same token, isn’t a back rower, but he’s being played there. Billy V is an outstanding 8-man, no issue there. He can generate yards from a standing start. As example of a balanced back row that we could use would be 6. Robshaw, 7. Curry, 8. Vunipola.

    For the rest of the pack, I thought we had what looked like AllBlacks-lite coming through. Jamie George is a hooker in the mould of Coles; wing specialist, quick for his size, good handling, good in the loose (he’s fallen off). Retallick-like Itoje is his skill and power. The props, traditionally, had the all-court game, but again, they look off the boil.

    So, I think you’re right, England’s balance is off, but not through lack of options. Cheers mate.

    • Great stuff Danny.

      You’ve nailed the forwards, so I will explain myself re the centres.

      The primary problem for me is the lack of top quality carriers close enough to run off the halves. Ideally you’d have one at 11 and one at 12; one might do but you’re not playing with either. Add this to not having many highly effective carriers or breakdown specialists starting up front and you have a problem getting quality front foot ball.

      I’d like to see Farrell, Te’o and Slade playing together. Farrell for the control and creating narrow breaks a la Sarries, Te’o the bosh and Slade is so good at setting up the outside backs. My problem with JJ is the latter – he has developed a very pretty cut out pass but for me he uses it whenever he can rather than when it is the best option.

  4. Interesting points, JD. Applying this to Scotland. Ryan Wilson definitely has the ideal attributes of an 8 whilst David Denton doesn’t really, talented though he is. Denton’s much more of an old-fashioned no8. It’s particularly interesting as Scotland made their first major error minutes after Wilson left the pitch.

    By your definitions, Scotland should have more balance in their midfield with Nick Grigg coming into replace Peter Horne on Saturday. Horne is a talented 12, converted from a 10 (like Owen Farrell), whereas Grigg is a 12 who can also play 13 just as comfortably.

    The clear first choice back 3 for Scotland is Maitland, Hogg & Seymour. Maitland’s just as capable at Full Back. Seymour runs for a deceptively large amount of Metres, and as was recently covered on this site Hogg’s started applying himself as a 2nd Receiver.

    • Thanks very much for that, Stewart. So much to like about that team, I love your wee seven too. Big thing for me with Scotland is to make sure that you have plenty of carrying, especially away to a big 6N pack. That Blair Kinghorn looks a great prospect on the wing.

      • Kinghorn does, though he currently fits the X-Factor player on the bench role perfectly.

        Yeah Wilson’s deceptively good at carrying, Johnny Grey’s getting better at it, but we could use a few more options. Scott Cummings, a young player, at Glasgow could be the long term solution. Dave Rennie certainly thinks very highly of him.

  5. Ireland seem to have most of those components plus the addition of props with skills, and a good place kicking 10 ( most of the time) . Stander is more of a carrier 8, perhaps lacking a bit in the x-factor skills. Having said that, for a perfect example of your description of an 8 see Max Deegan at Leinster. Unfortunately at the moment I think Ringrose is the only 13 with the defensive intelligence ideal for that position. On the plus side with injury recovery and young talent coming through we’ll potentially be 2 or 3 deep in seveal places.

    • I really rated Payne and Heaslip as balance players in key decision making positions, I hope the former is able to get back to his best. To be honest though, Ireland’s physical approach, and the overall skills of your forwards, mean that a trio like Stander, POM and any of your opensides has a balance that suits you fine. A fantastic carrier, a great jumper, plenty of dog, and lots of breakdown skill. It works!

  6. Nice article JD. We’ve discussed your views on a balanced midfield before and your suggestion of Faz, T’eo, Slade has a nice feel to it. T’eo/Manu may come into the equation at 12 and you can substitute Slade for JJ (Daly has to be on the field somewhere!). You also suggest balance in the backs requires a hard carrying wing, I guess the best we have is Nowell and we have missed him this 6N’s – would you therefore substitute May for Nowell?

    if so a backline selected from the following would meet your criteria: 9. Youngs/Robson 10. Faz, 11. Nowell, 12. T’eo/Manu 13. Slade/Daly 14. Watson/May 15. Watson/Brown/Daly

    By my reckoning this makes Faz and Nowell the key men for England going into Japan and that feels about right to me.

    • Cheers Slam

      I’ve not thought much about your back three. I really like Nowell at club level, pulls off miracles on both attack and defence through sheer determination. Has been outclassed on occasion though, e.g. in NZ and even he’s not that great

      What a shame Cuthbert didn’t opt for the country of his birth 😀

      • Cuthbert isnt the shame, North is. We should be ok after the world cup with Cokanasiga, but I think Jones was hoping yarde would show the offensive form of the nz tour in 2014 without the defensive lapses (although he was being played on the wrong wing). Again, that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen now.

        • I was just teasing Slamma about Cuthbert, he doesn’t rate him.

          Cokanasiga is an amazing prospect isn’t he? He’ll bring a whole new dimension if he keeps developing.

    • The issue here is you, like many seem to think Farrell is some top class 10. Farrell has no significant running game to speak of, he can’t pass quickly from left to right and has never been able to attack the line and create space or make it with a incisive pass. He also missed lots of tackles. I genuinely don’t get why he keeps being rated so much, if he was born down south neither the kiwis or aussies would ever consider a non-running, can’t pass both ways 10 or midfielder. There is a reason England score more tries with Ford at 10.

      • My main point was that england badly need a ball carrying 12 and ball playing 13 but yes, why not look at Farrell.

        We’ve seen very well at Saracens that Farrell is extremely good at playing the narrow game that suits both club and country. He has a brilliant knack of finding a gap for himself or a teammate. Chris Ashton knew that if he hung around Farrell the tries would come. Add his tactical acumen and excellence in all aspects of kicking and you have a fly half who plays to England’s strengths.

  7. The twin fly halves option did ok for the lions against the all blacks, but that was helped by Davies combination of skill and bulk. With 2003 England, Greenwood had the same, as did 2007 South Africa with Steyn, so I guess if you don’t play it the All Black way you need a break-the-mold type player. Unfortunately England don’t have one of those at the moment, at least until Devoto fulfils his potential, which may take forever at this rate. I think that leaves us with the current options, so we just have to hope that Jones picks the right midfield for the right match.

  8. Or I guess play it the all blacks way with tuilagi/teo + daly/slade, but it’s probably a bit late for that, unless one of latter can show they can defend as well as Joseph.

    • It might surprise you, but I really rated Tuilagi as a promising all round 13 before his injury. Apart from being such a great physical specimen, against us he made some great defensive reads and knew how to create for his outsides. I rarely saw him for Leicester though.

      • Yeah, he was pretty good, and I don’t remember too many defensive lapses with England, but he does seem to rush up too often with Leicester. In any case, I think Farrell and Tuilagi is a bit too one dimensional – one passes, the other runs.

        Re ball carriers, I think England have enough in the forward pack, at least when they’re not injured. The two vunipolas area pretty good base to start from, whilst Lawes can be effective when. He uses his footwork.

        • Re your first paragraph, I think coaching may have been key. He had Andy Farrell coaching defence for England, so he would have been very clear on the system and what to expect from the opposition. Would have been a great system too.

          My concern with both him and Billy is that they haven’t been well looked after and we may never see them back at their best. In NZ we are more cautious as to the goal weight of a player, and the right workload for them.

  9. Cuthbert isnt the shame, North is. We should be ok after the world cup with Cokanasiga, but I think Jones was hoping yarde would show the offensive form of the nz tour in 2014 without the defensive lapses (although he was being played on the wrong wing). Again, that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen now.

  10. Sorry for the double post. I think the only real ball carrying option in the back three is rokoduguni, if his work rate was up to scratch.

  11. Great to see that Eddie is reading the 1014. A big 12 and a ball carrier in the loosies. Another carrier in the front row. A much more balanced team.

    Both teams will be very highly motivated… This will be titanic!

  12. Great article JD! I think Eddie Jones will leave his Lions (unless they have had long term injuries) out of the South Africa tour. I certainly hope so. Applying your balanced team approach to England without most of the Lions, I want to see something like this team:

    1 Ellis Genge, 2 Luke Cowan Dickie, 3 Harry Williams, 4 Joe Launchbury, 5 Charlie Ewels, 6 Sam Simmonds, 7 Tom Curry, 8 Billy Vunipola, 9 Danny Care (c), 10 Marcus Smith, 11 Denny Solomona, 12 Manu Tuilagi, 13 Henry Slade, 14 Jack Nowell, 15 Alex Goode

    I think that ticks all the boxes and can win a series in South Africa, provided the Boks don’t improve too much in the interim. Obviously I swapped the role of 6 & 8 to reflect the way NH teams set up.

  13. Thanks Daniel.

    Interesting to see all the non Lion experience that you’ve left out e.g. Robshaw, Ford, Brown, Youngs, Hartley. Not all the youngsters need to start necessarily and they need experience around them. Of course, everyone who needs a rest should get one.

    I see that you’re hopeful that Tuilagi and Billy will be fit and firing… That will certainly transform the team!

    • Hi JD, I think Youngs and Ford need a rest before the World Cup, and the others you mention don’t fit the balanced team mold you laid out (one I would like to see England try out). Manu and Billy could really help England get back on track if they tour well. Manu got injured again today, hopefully a minor one.

  14. Hi JD. I think England are in two pickles, firstly as you note in the back row and then pretty much the whole of the backline….

    The backrow is interesting, you point to the balance of the ABs backrow, and the importance of the No. 8 to the AB lineout plan and the flankers being a fetcher 7 and a carrier 6 (to precis wildly! ) Do England have a problem that Billy is seen as the must pick, but that in turn has an impact on the flanker selection, Billy being no lineout expert (For me)? He’s also been important for go fowards given the lightweight backs

    With the backs, if Farrell, Te’o and Slade play, that dictates to some extent a “narrow” Sarries style, though that could be effective. It does make the back three even more important buy many provide some more questions for the back row. The Ashton model of ball carrier off the wing was very much more line and pace than strength, Watson might offer similar, Daly is just a good footballer but Brown is effective if a little one dimensional.

    Eddie seems to want a big wing, even though those playing don’t score so many tries and ignores the Prem’s top try scorer, who could “do an Ashton” potentially if given a chance. 15 is really a problem for England right now, Watson did look like he was going to make it his shirt but its not clear if with Eddie’s works, he is going to make it

    Difficult times so near to the RWC!

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