OPENSIDE FLANKER

FORWARD - #7

The Basics

WHAT IS AN OPENSIDE FLANKER?

Openside flanker is a position in rugby union that is a member of the forward pack. They pack into the scrum with one arm alongside a Lock. A defense-first player, the openside is best known for their ability and willingness to tackle and win turnovers at the breakdown. On attack, their primary responsibility is to secure first-phase possession. Thereafter, the openside will run support lines off the ball carrier looking for offloads in contact. If the ball carrier goes to ground, they will secure the breakdown for the scrumhalf. 

WHAT ARE THE OTHER NAMES FOR OPENSIDE FLANKER?

Before rugby became professional in 1994, flankers were often referred to as Breakaways. So in some old film and commentary you may hear the openside flanker referred to as the Openside Breakaway. Less common but still used in some locations are the terms Strongside and Weakside to distinguish between the Openside and Blindside flankers. You’ll usually find this term used when a coach is explaining the defensive structure at a scrum situation. The side of the field with more space between the scrum and the sideline is described as the strongside or openside and is defended by the openside flanker. 

OPENSIDE FLANKER AS A LOOSE FORWARD

Openside flanker is part of a forward sub-unit known as the loose forwards. This unit is made up of the openside flanker, blindside flanker and No. 8. Because this group possesses many transferrable skills and abilities, you’ll often find players switching positions within this unit depending on availability within a rugby squad and the specific tactics being used within a game. For example, if an openside flanker is taller and has better ball skills than a loose forward on the bench, a coach will often move the openside to No. 8 when that bench player comes onto the field. 

WHAT IS THE OPENSIDE'S NFL EQUIVALENT?

On defense, openside flankers are most similar to a linebacker or strong safety. They typically make the most tackles and win the most turnovers of any position on the rugby field. On offense, they’re most similar to a fullback, providing support and physicality while being a secondary option for carrying the ball.

Positional Play

WHERE DOES THE OPENSIDE FLANKER STAND DURING SCRUMS?

openside flanker scrum position

In most offensive or defensive situations, the openside flanker will pack down on the open side of the scrum. That is, the side of the field with more space between the scrum and sideline. The graphic above shows this position relative to the scrum and backline. In offensive situations, the openside will usually be on the same side as the flyhalf. This allows them to break from the scrum and attack the first breakdown to secure possession for his/her team. On defense, they will run a similar line, aiming to assist with tackling the ball carrier and will attempt to slow the attacking team’s breakdown.

WHERE DOES THE OPENSIDE FLANKER STAND FOR OFFENSIVE LINEOUTS?

openside flanker offensive lineout position

Where an openside flanker stands for offensive lineouts will depend on the makeup of your forward pack. In many circumstances, they will be the appropriate jumping option for the back pod of the lineout. However, they also may be the back lifter for this pod. Since the openside flanker is usually the shortest player not in the front row, they won’t usually be placed in the front or middle pods. 

WHERE DOES THE OPENSIDE FLANKER STAND FOR DEFENSIVE LINEOUTS?

If at all possible, the best place for your openside to defend lineouts is at the traditional scrumhalf position. This allows them the freedom to operate without needing to perform a lift. From the scrumhalf position, they can attack the opposition’s flyhalf or an attacking player positioned inside the flyhalf. If the attacking team opts to maul, the openside should avoid entering the maul and defend on the side of the maul anticipating a breakaway by the attack’s ball carrier. 

Physical Attributes

DURABILITY

BALANCE

ACCELERATION

Mental Attributes

PERSAVERANCE

REACTIVITY

Position-specific Skills

TACKLING

VISION

SCRUMMAGING

BREAKDOWN

SUPPORT

Frequently Asked Questions

Why are openside flankers smaller than blindside?

This isn’t a hard and fast rule. But as rugby has evolved, positions have developed increasingly specialized skillets. By virtue of their position on the open side of the scrum, openside flankers make a higher % of their tackles against Backs than blindside flankers do. As a result, it its advantageous for openside flankers to be faster and more agile than their blindside counterparts. 

Is it possible to play openside flanker at 5′8/5’9″ and 96kg (semi-professional level)?

It’s certainly possible. But your height is slightly limiting. At a semi-professional level, most packs will want at least four lineout options over 6’2”. This provides many different options at lineout time. Having one player that is 5’9” isn’t the end of the world, but it will really depend on the makeup of the rest of the pack. Say you have a 6’3” No. 8 that is unable to jump because they’re too heavy. Now you have two players that cannot be considered jumping options and the opposition will mark your other jumpers accordingly. 

Also keep in mind if you’re not jumping at a lineout, you’ll likely be lifting. Shorter lifters mean less elevation for a jumper. So you can’t really hide a short forward by relegating them to a lifting role either. The Wallabies have historically had issues with this when playing two openside flankers on the same field. In the 2000s they experimented with this strategy using George Smith and Phil Waugh. More recently, they tried the same thing with David Pocock and Michael Hooper. The result was a significantly depleted lineout.

Is 9 tackles in one game of rugby union bad for an openside flanker?

This depends on the specific game, time of possession, gameplay and also the definition of a tackle. For example, if you complete 9 tackles as the tackler and an additional 9 as the tackle assist, that would be a huge performance. Similarly, if your team is in possession for 60 mins in a match and you secure 25 Rucks on offense, maybe 9 tackles is a huge effort. You really can’t definitively say whether 9 tackles is bad without looking at other metrics that would put this in the context of the match.

How challenging would it be to switch from openside flanker to hooker?

This is more of a Hooker question than one for openside flankers. In general play, hookers and opensides have very similar functions and abilities. But at the set piece, they have vastly different roles. To switch effectively from openside to Hooker, you would need to add some significantly bulk in order to handle the physical stress of scrummaging. And you’d also need to work hard learning how to throw lineouts and hook the ball when scrumming. Those skills aren’t easy. In fact, they’re some of the most difficult in the sport. So, how challenging? Very challenging. Better get out to the pitch and start tossing lineouts. 

Best Openside Flankers

WHO ARE THE BEST OPENSIDE FLANKERS RIGHT NOW?

I’m just wondering, who’s the best…

In case some of you wonder who the best is, they’re up here on his plaque on the wall. 

10. KWAGGA SMITH (South Africa)

Smith is to the Blitzboks what Michael Hooper should be to the Australian 7s squad. He’s quick off the mark, agile and excellent in contact. Standing just 5’10”, his low center of gravity helps him brush off tackles and make significant run meters on the 7s field. Smith was an Olympic Bronze medalist at Rio 2016 where he helped the Blitzboks crush Japan in the 3rd/4th playoff.  

In the 15s game, he’s been stellar for the Lions since joining them in 2014. His contributions at the 2019 World Cup helped South Africa get out of the pool stages in great shape. But perhaps his best 15s performance was for the Barbarians against the All Blacks in 2017 where he kicked ahead and went stride for stride with Waisake Naholo

9. DU'PLESSIS KIRIFI (New Zealand)

Part of the new-breed who has been a stand-out for the Wellington Hurricanes in Super Rugby Aotearoa, Du’Plessis Kirifi is sure to get an All Blacks jersey this year.

8. SIYA KOLISI (South Africa)

Given that he led the Springboks to a Rugby World Cup in 2019, you could be forgiven for thinking Siya Kolisi should be higher on this list. But his versatility hurts him a little bit. Kolisi can play at 6, 7 or 8 and looks at home in any of them. His leadership is exemplary. But he’s not quite as good on the ball as Francois Louw or Pieter-Steph du Toit. 

7. ARDIE SAVEA (New Zealand)

A powerhouse for the Hurricanes and All Blacks for the best part of a decade, it’s incredible to think that Ardie Savea is still only 26 years old. At his best with ball in hand, Savea makes more run meters than any other flanker in world rugby. While not as good at the breakdown as a Sam Cane or Matt Todd, he’s managed to rack up 44 Tests in his short All Blacks career including being a nominee for international player of the year in 2019.

6. JUSTIN TIPURIC (Wales)

The unsung hero of the Welsh Rugby squad. Tipuric is the best on-ball openside flanker running around in the Northern Hemisphere right now. At 30 years old, he’s still very much in his prime and should retain the Wales #7 for the 2023 Rugby World Cup. 

5. FRANCOIS LOUW (South Africa)

Nearing the end of his illustrious career now, Francois Louw has been a stalwart of the Springboks throughout the 2010s. Known for his breakdown skills, Louw has battled the likes of Sam Cane, Richie McCaw and David Pocock for breakdown supremacy in The Rugby Championship. Louw is a great example of a flanker who changes the way an attacking team plays. His ability to win turnovers forced opposing teams to commit additional players to their rucks to secure possession. 

4. SEAN O'BRIEN (Ireland)

3. SAM CANE (New Zealand)

2. SAM UNDERHILL (England)

1. DAVID POCOCK (Australia)

The best pure openside Australia has produced since George Smith. The Australian public probably figured they’d get to watch him until RWC2023, but sadly the breakdown king has retired from international rugby in 2020. Known for his incredible strength and balance, Pocock is the most prolific breakdown forward in a generation. Unfortunately we may not have even seen him at his best.

The Wallabies routinely selected Pocock at #8 and #6 rather than at openside flanker in an attempt to play both Hooper and Pocock on the field at the same time. The formula was successful to a point as with Smith and Waugh in the 2000s. 

NOTABLE OMMISSIONS

Michael Hooper – Because somehow the Wallabies and Waratahs have confused a Sevens player and #7. 

WHO ARE THE BEST OPENSIDE FLANKERS OF ALL TIME?

9. JEAN-PIERRE RIVES (France)

8. RUBEN KRUGER (South Africa)

7. RICHARD HILL (England)

6. MICHAEL JONES (New Zealand)

5. FRANCOIS PIENAAR (South Africa)

4. DAVID POCOCK (Australia)

3. JOSH KRONFELD (New Zealand)

2. GEORGE SMITH (Australia)

1. RICHIE MCCAW (New Zealand)

WHAT NFL PLAYER WOULD BE THE BEST OPENSIDE FLANKER?

TROY POLAMALU

RAY LEWIS