Are fullbacks a dying breed?
November 18, 2009
Ugo Monye endured a nightmare showing against Argentina © Getty Images
Think JPR Williams, Serge Blanco, Gavin Hastings and Percy Montgomery and you immediately conjure images of great fullbacks. They were all very different as players but they were instantly recognisable as No.15s.
Serge now has a clothing company named '15' and even though he was the only one of the four who might have passed muster as a wing he was always adamant that first and foremost he was a specialist fullback.
Now there is a real danger they are becoming a dying breed as more and more coaches seem to believe any player with a decent boot, a bit of pace and a good pair of hands can fill in at the back despite compelling evidence to the contrary.
It seems incredible that Ugo Monye could still be considered for selection at fullback for England against New Zealand after his display against Argentina. After long deliberation they have opted for Mark Cueto with Monye moving to the wing despite his inept performance. Cueto might be a better catcher but, sadly, he is not the answer either.
Wales only have a temporary problem but Warren Gatland has made the same mistake in trying to solve it. They do have an excellent specialist fullback, Lee Byrne, but whilst he is recovering from injury Gatland has opted for James Hook - a terrific talent but not in the last line of defence.
Against the All Blacks he was adequate because he is a superb footballer but when you examine his contribution more closely it soon becomes obvious Wales got the worst instead of the best out of him.
He posed absolutely no threat as an attacking runner (probably for the first time) because he has not had enough experience in running the very different lines required when you are joining an attack from deep; his kicking was aimless instead of probing and he struggled in defence because he is used to operating as part of a unit.
Wales suddenly have a plethora of No.10s and he seems to have slipped to third in the pecking order so they found a place for him - the wrong place. It is crystal clear that Jamie Roberts and Tom Shanklin are too similar to play in tandem and Hook should be groomed as a specialist inside centre who can use his kicking and distribution skills to add some subtlety to the Welsh attack.
What makes the attitude of the coaches so hard to understand is that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that success demands a specialist at fullback.
On the British & Irish Lions tour Byrne was one of the standout players until his injury. Timing your own leap to field high kicks in attack and defence is an essential skill and Byrne did it superbly. When he was ruled out Rob Kearney, another player who insists he is a fullback not a wing, took over and did it equally well.
When Willie John McBride regales audiences with tales of the 1974 Lions he always makes reference to the fact he can never remember JPR ever dropping a ball and the confidence that gave the team - modern coaches seem to have downgraded its importance.
I can never remember JPR missing a tackle and that was pretty important too but again the specialised nature of the one on one fullback's tackle appears to be a forgotten art. While most modern tackling is all about smothering the ball carrier the fullback still has to use his shoulder and try to knock the man back on occasions. It is not a skill often practised these days unless you come from the Pacific Islands.
As usual the All Blacks have got it right. Mils Muliaina is not their most glamorous player but he has now won 79 caps and is the rock on which much of their success has been built since 2003.
He is a very modern No.15 in that he is a superb attacker with nearly 30 tries in internationals but his understanding of his defensive duties is equally important. When the aerial ping-pong begins at Twickenham this weekend - as sadly it will - just watch how much better he and Dan Carter are at pinpointing their kicks than their England counterparts.
There will be no aimless hoofing the ball back downfield - they will be trying to turn their opponents and get in behind them. They will normally succeed on the second or third attempt and when the return comes back short the whole team will change gear and go into running mode.
Monye and or Cueto simply cannot match that kicking power or the lines of running so England will miss out and they will continue to do so until they learn that, although the fullback's role has changed, it still requires unique skills and a different mind set to any other position on the field.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to ESPNScrum
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