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The Hybrid Rower - Part 1


  • The Hybrid Rower - Part 1


    In theory, it’s hard to argue against the logic of the hybrid rower - a big strong athlete who is physically strong enough to survive the tight grind of scrummaging and mauling, tall enough to act as a primary lineout option,explosive enough to carry the ball regularly into contact and make yards, and skillful enough to pass, off-load, sidestep and make himself a threat in open play … as well as being a destroyer in defense when your side doesn’t have the ball.

    One of the greatest players of all time, Colin ‘Pinetree’ Meads, was a hybrid, a rock-hard second row with great handling who loved the rough and tumble of contact and was nothing short of a monster with ball in hand. Early in his New Zealand career he was selected at No8 and as a flanker – or the ‘siderow’ as this article refers to it: – and at 192cm and 100kg would have had sufficient size for any of those positions during the course of his international stint, spanning over three decades from 1957-71.

    His great adversary, the legendary South African Frik du Preez, was another who excelled both in the second row and the backrow, winning 38 caps for the Boks between 1961 and 1971. A big man but not a giant at 188cm and about 96-100kg in his playing days, he could by contemporary accounts do it all – run, pass, kick, jump, scrummage and absolutely lay the wood on anybody coming around the blindside.

    It’s apparent then that the only thing new about the hybrid second row/backrow is the nomenclature: they’ve always been around. On the other hand, has professionalism in rugby made positional flexibility less relevant, or are there still game-changers out there in international rugby who can mix it up in both rows? Has the great generalist died out with the specialisation that professionalism demands across the spheres?

    First Things First
    What is the point of a hybrid in the pro game, anyway? Is it purely for bench cover? Surely if a player is good enough to play pro rugby he’s better in one position than another?

    Well, sometimes it can be a purely tactical move. Take for example the recent games between Leinster and Munster. Denis Leamy is, at his best, an excellent blindside. Why then drop him in favour of Donnacha Ryan, who, as a pure blindside, has never approached the levels that Leamy has hit in his career? I’d contend that the deal-breaker was one particular issue: lineouts. With a Leamy/Wallace/Coughlin backrow, Munster would have three stumps at the tail, none of them over 188cm [6’2”]; this ceded a big advantage to Leinster, who had excellent, proven jumpers in Heaslip at 191cm [6’3”] and McLaughlin at 193cm [6’4”]. With Ryan in at 6, all of a sudden that advantage is more or less cancelled out – maybe Munster don’t have the numbers that Leinster had in the lineout, but they now had three 6’6” guys, which is a big tall lineout by anybody’s standards [apart from the early 90s English enormo-pack of Dooley, Bayfield, Rodber and Clarke or the 09 Springbok “Mother of All Lineouts” with Matfield, Botha, Smith and Spies].

    Sometimes weather has a big part to play as well. If you know in advance that you’ll be playing in a fierce gale with horizontal rain all night, you may choose to keep it tight, and pack the pack with big strong men who can maul and scrummage better than they can pass and run: your hybrid ‘rower can be a great bet in those circumstances. You can even put him on the blindside and switch your hard-hitting, hard-running regular blindside across to openside and just rely on the fact that you will win the forward battle and dictate how the game is played.

    Then sometimes you just have the guy who is too good to leave out - maybe he’s a youngster that you haven’t quite found the right position for: Tom Croft in his early days at Leicester, for example, or Courtney Lawes at Northampton, even early Fabien Pelous [yes, he used to play in the backrow - source:]. You know that he’s going to be a serious second-row when he grows into it, but even though he’s a little lightweight now, he’s still too good to leave out of the team.

    Then you have the strategic level, when they’re used to allow you a lot of lee-way on the bench. Your hybrid ‘rower can start either in the backrow and move forward or, more unusually [because his legs will be knackered] start in the second row and move back. This allows you some variety in your bench - you can have an out-and-out openside on the bench, for example, so that if the game breaks up you can play with two opensides, taking off a second-row and moving your hybrid forward, or you can go with the unusual 4/4 split [in an 8 man bench] allowing yourself the luxury of a full front-row, a backrow sub and then a dedicated scrum-half, outhalf and two outside backs for impact. That’s just one option - it’s not quite an endless array of choices, but there’s a good few wrinkles in there for an adventurous coach.

    A little ‘Je ne sais pourquoi … je l’ai selectionné dans la deuxiéme ligne”
    The demands of the French league – the length of the season, the number of games played, the variance in conditions, practical squad numbers – has always led to positional innovation amongst French club coaches. It’s not unusual to see backrows swap into the second row, or props chance their arm at hooker. Mick O’Driscoll and Trevor Brennan are two high[ish] profile Irish players who played in the Top 14 and became used to being selected in either row, as have Scots Nathan Hines [Perpignan] and Scott Murray [Stade]. Anybody who watches enough rugby will have seen de facto second rows picked on the blindside; they add an extra jumper at lineout time, a lot of grunt in the tight and can be good for a few close-in carries.

    Last of the Mohicans
    However, it’s exceedingly rare [thank you, Mr. Kipling] for a player to be able to step up to the varied demands of both rows at international level, never mind dominate or set the crowds racing – which the phenomenal Abdelatif Benazzi was able to do over his 78-cap French career, spanning the amateur and professional eras from 1990-2001. He was the lynchpin of the last great 5 Nations backrow of Benazzi, Philippe Benetton [59 caps, ‘89-99] and Laurent Cabannes [49 caps, ‘87-97] – the BBC – and was poached early in his playing career by Les Bleus after some distinguished performances for Morroco. Colonial. Benazzi was big enough at 197cm and 112kg to play in the second row, but was equally capable at blindside. However, he earned most of his caps at No8, and was an outstanding member of the French 1995 RWC side, one of three world cups he took part in. Runner, hitter, lineout option, he was the go-to guy; the BBC described him as “one of the finest forwards in the world game over the past decade.” [source: ]

    As we have seen though, his career bestrode the late amateur and the early professional era: was he the last of the Mohicans?

    To read more see : The Hybrid Rower - Part 2
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