Justin Marshall: The evolution of the tight five

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The Blues pack a scrum against the Bulls. Photo / Getty Images.
The Blues pack a scrum against the Bulls. Photo / Getty Images.

Don't roll your eyes or dismiss a former halfback talking about the tight five. I wanted to do an information/analytical piece about the evolution of that group.

I wanted to tap into the way the modern game is going, looking at the last round of matches and thinking about some of the key clashes in this weekend's games when you look at the Brumbies and Highlanders and particularly the Blues and Sharks.

A lot of the way the teams play the modern game is about how they use their tight five and when you look at some of the most prominent teams in world rugby and also in other competitions, their tight five adds a different dimension to their game-plan.

When you think about the way the Sharks play and the direct manner their tight five go, it's not often you see them distributing the ball. Whether they have looked into that style of game or it's an ability to play the game that way I'm not sure but it does mean they are a more predictable side to defend.

When you have players who do not distribute and analyse them pre-game, then you can double-team them on defence. Two tacklers in and be aggressive and possibly turn the ball over whereas when Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock or Luke Romano is getting the ball as first receiver, they can either offload to a fellow tight five player, pass in behind to a back running a trailing line or carry the ball themselves.

As a defender you are then painted a very different picture. You have multiple issues to deal with.

You can't be as aggressive either and that's significant in the way the game has evolved because it was unknown for props to touch the ball or even other members of the tight five. They used to be set-piece orientated or told to hit rucks.

I remember coming through the amateur years and coaches used to tell tight forwards over and over again, hit rucks, hit rucks and get good set-piece ball.

Now for a big man who looks slightly awkward, when I watch Retallick's skills like throwing a left to right pass about a dozen metres, out in front or missing a teammate, or his ability to take the ball to the line and get an offload away to a trailing runner or support player that was something the tight five were never allowed to try or contemplate.

When you look at the top teams in the world, you think that is where Eddie Jones is going to try and evolve English rugby a lot more.

The best teams at the last World Cup, the All Blacks and Wallabies had amazing ball players throughout their packs. They had such an expansive gameplan because of the skills of the tight five and that made them so tough to defend.

You wonder if Eddie Jones and Alastair Coetzee with the Springboks, want to get their big, strong players to expand their games.

When I played in the UK for six years, if I gave one of the tight five players a ball one-off a ruck, he would line up a defender and try and run over the top of him. They were hard men to bring down but you did.

That is where NZ rugby has had an incredible advantage over any other nation because of the forwards being ball-players. It will be a massive advantage for the Blues this weekend but a big problem for the Highlanders because the Brumbies have such a skilled forward pack and are difficult to defend. The Highlanders will have as many problems coming their way as they will look to send towards the Brumbies.

The Sharks don't play that way yet. They are big and strong but are they going to show much expansion or subtlety in the ball-running from their forwards. I don't think so and the Blues will be able to hone in and double-team the defensive zone and look to pinch possession in a gang-tackle.

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