The last games of the group stages have shown us aspects of back row play that could be crucial in winning the tournament. Ireland and Wales now look as much the form teams now as anyone and their back rows have been outstanding and creating break downs.
Sean O’Brien is at the moment the tournament’s wrecking ball over the gain line. He comes from deep runs a simple line, with a very powerful but upright body position. He is not going to ground the opposition often three of them have to take him to ground. He takes distance and always recycles behind the opposition defensive line.
The attack can guarantee the ball will come and plan for quick ball. It was interesting when Nick Easter came on for England, though with less power, there was the same certainty in simple lines, yards gained ball recycled that lead to England dominating and scoring in the later stages. Everything under control.
Stephen Ferris on the other hand was the Irish defensive enforcer. He was able to stand flat and completely nullify the surges of the likes of Castrogiovanni who never once got over the gain line and was out of the game half way through the first half. The ability to stop drives before the gain line gave Italy no target.
Then there was Heaslip who showed massive strength over the breakdown to achieve brilliant body position and strip ball time and time again. With these three playing at their best even the great Parisse was a bit part player.
Perhaps the only thing these three lack is a bit of pace and passing flair. Which brings us to Sam Warburton of Wales. With him we see something slightly different but equally effective. He is moving with even greater speed and looking to hit the spaces either side of defenders in a way that O’Brien isn’t. His fend is good and he runs classic 7 support lines as well as delivering great off loads. This gives Wales the extremely fluid style around the phases that links forwards and backs together in a single wave. Warburton’s youthful pace make his power all the more dangerous and also gets him to ball on the ground faster than his Irish rivals.
It will be fascinating to see in the next game between the two next Saturday who comes off the best.