It’s a lonely place at the back.
Even in the ultimate team sport, and surrounded by thousands of screaming supporters, a full-back can often feel isolated and abandoned. It can seem that everyone has forgotten you’re on the field, as you run from side to side without anyone noticing, except the GPS unit strapped on your back.
Then BANG! Welcome to the game.
It’s the nature of the position, and not uncommon that for the first 10 mins of a match, a full-back will not touch the ball, nor feature in any facet of the game captured by the television cameras. Then within seconds, you will be called into action to retrieve a high ball that’s been drilled into the sky (howling wind whipping it in all sorts of directions), and there’s a 15-man brick wall waiting to blast you into next week.
It’s why full-back is often referred to as a ‘specialist’ position. The role of the 15 requires a range of skills, all of equal importance and all fundamental in getting you into the game, having a constant presence in the game, and ultimately, changing the game.
A full-back must have an innate ability to read what’s in front of him, vision to see attacking opportunities, and alertness to quell the opposition’s.
Why? Because he has the best seat it in the house.
Retrieving high balls, kicking, last-ditch defence, precise line running, strength at outside breakdowns and communicating with your wingers are all characteristics that the best full-backs in the world have in their locker.
Two individuals who possess these skills, and currently two of the in-form number 15s in the Northern Hemisphere, go head to head this Sunday as Ireland take on Scotland in the Six Nations opener.
In what promises to be a tight affair, Rob Kearney and Stuart Hogg’s individual battle, and ability to change the game from the back in their own particular way, is one of a number of key clashes that will be crucial in the outcome of the game.
Both men, while portraying sizeable differences statistically on paper (Kearney is six years older and has 34 more international appearances), have much more in common off it when reflecting on their last six to eight months of rugby.
Both were chosen to tour Australia with the British and Irish Lions but were confined to the sidelines and midweek games as they watched another world class fullback, Leigh Halfpenny, tear the Wallabies apart in three outstanding performances that saw him win Player of the Series.
A hamstring injury threatened to end Kearney’s tour before it even began, and Hogg was thrust into the number 10 jersey at times, all of which limited both players’ ability to play their natural game and have the impact on the tour that they would have wanted.
Since the start of the RaboDirect Pro 12 though, both have returned to their favoured spot at the back and have been in outstanding form for their clubs, much to the delight of both Irish and Scottish supporters.
Kearney has fought of the challenge of Springbok international Zane Kirchner at Leinster while Hogg has overcome injury to return for the Glasgow Warriors.
Scotland have opted for Duncan Weir at out-half, a predominantly kicking 10. Regarded as one of the best retrievers of the high ball in world rugby, Kearney’s status will be challenged by Weir. On the other hand, if Ireland choose to kick loosely to Hogg, an outstanding broken field runner, they risk giving the 21-year-old the little space he needs to cause havoc in the Irish defensive line.
Under the tutelage of new coach Joe Schmidt, Ireland have shown the willingness to keep ball in hand with an attacking mindset much similar to that of Leinster where he was at the helm this time last year. It’s a style that Kearney thrives in as the fast-paced offloading game suits his high work rate and ability to run support lines off forwards who are willing to risk the pass.
Much has been spoken about Scotland’s inability to score tries, and before a ball has been kicked, most have already resigned the Scotsmen to a two-way battle with Italy for the tournament’s wooden spoon. I don’t see it this way.
In Hogg, Maitland, and Lamont, they have a back three more than capable of causing the Irish a number of problems; it will come down to the Scottish forwards and whether they can provide enough go forward so that the three can be at their most potent.
It’s rare that Kearney and Hogg will meet one-on-one during Sunday’s game but their influence on how it’s played out around the park is crucial.
Both attacking and in form, both capable of changing the game with a moment of magic. Let’s all hope for dry weather.
– @adamdarcy played 54 times for Ulster from 2010 to 2013. He is currently with English Championship side Bristol.
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- Rob Kearney