Analysis: The Back Row Boys

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The Backstreet Boys are the biggest selling boy band of all time. They have sold over 130 million record across the world, and have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I ask you though, have they ever made a cumulative 61 tackles and helped to force 20 turnovers in a single game? I thought not.

That is exactly what the Cardiff Blues back row of Olly Robinson, Ellis Jenkins and Josh Turnbull did on the weekend as they helped us to a third straight Pro14 victory away to Zebre in testing Italian conditions on Sunday.

It was a victory born out of a defensive performance that saw 174 tackles made by the visitors. Restricting Zebre to just one try, and an interception try at that, is testament to the effort and commitment put in to defending a slender lead for the majority of the game.

At the heart of that was the back row trio somewhat thrown together, as injuries to Macauley Cook and Nick Williams prevented them from travelling, while Josh Navidi was with the Wales squad and Sam Warburton still sidelined.

From the very get-go there were good signs that, despite concerns about their collective weight, the back row would be a cohesive unit in putting a stop to Zebre attacks.

Zebre A back row analysis 6

Zebre A back row analysis 2

In the first clip we see the triple pronged defence, with Josh Turnbull and Ellis Jenkins making tackles, before Olly Robinson is over the ball at the breakdown.

Then, in clip two, it is Robinson again over the ball as he assists Turnbull in securing the turnover, while Ellis Jenkins acts as the ruck guard.

Of course it’s not coincidence that they all just turn up at breakdowns and in positions to make tackles. It comes back to two things, the first of which is pure work rate.

Zebre A back row analysis 1

Zebre A back row analysis 12

Zebre A back row analysis 13

Three kicks, and three times that members of the back row trio have been up there leading the chase. Ellis Jenkins works hard in tracking back in clip one and on the second clip it’s Olly Robinson making the tackle to stop the kick return.

That culminates in the final clip as all three of the back row are on hand after the kicker Jarrod Evans misses the first tackle. Robinson brings the Zebre player down, before Jenkins and Turnbull team up to secure a turnover in good field position.

The second aspect to the back row play on Sunday, coupled with the work rate, was their defensive organisation to ensure that they covered the field of play.

Zebre Back Row 3

Zebre Back Row 4

Zebre A back row analysis 7

Zebre A back row analysis 8

Throughout the game the three back rowers operated a spread formation, with at least one of them either side of the breakdown, and then the third player operating as a guard if they are not involved in the ruck.

When Josh Turnbull makes the first tackle, Ellis Jenkins reacts by moving to the blindside. Although Zebre opt to carry on the openside, Olly Robinson is positioned to get over the ball and slow it down, while Turnbull moves to take his place in the defensive line.

Zebre Back Row 5

Zebre A back row analysis 9

Then, as Zebre keep their carrying tight, all three of the back row constrict to focus on the fringes of the breakdown. Josh Turnbull and Olly Robinson pair up on the first tackle, before Ellis Jenkins stops the second drive. A well oiled back row machine.

Although on that occasion the tight nature of the Zebre attack prevented any turnover opportunities, it wasn’t the case throughout the match.

Zebre Back Row 7

Zebre Back Row 8

Zebre A back row analysis 11

In an attacking position Zebre are tempted to play a more expansive game, after keeping it tight from a set piece.

Olly Robinson and Josh Turnbull are close to the breakdown, covering the blindside and the fringe area of the openside, with Ellis Jenkins out of shot in the wider channels. It is Ellis who eventually makes the tackle in this phase.

As in the second still, with Jenkins tied up on the floor, Olly Robinson works around the corner to the blindside, and when Zebre choose to work it, Robinson is in a perfect position to get over the ball and win the turnover deep in his own 22.

That wider formation is shown again at the end of the game, with Olly Robinson and Ellis Jenkins both taking up positions in midfield when Zebre leave the blindside empty.

Zebre Back Row 13

Zebre A back row analysis 17

With time ticking on, Cardiff Blues know Zebre will have to keep the ball in hand if they harbour any ambition to win the game. It’s a smart move then for the back row to setup as they do.

When Zebre inevitably do go wide Ellis Jenkins gladly wraps up the ball carrier, assisted by George Earle initially before Olly Robinson works across, and together they force a turnover that would pretty much secure the away win.

By the end of the game, it felt like that organisation of the back row was almost second nature to the three of them.

Zebre Back Row 10

Zebre A back row analysis 15

Cardiff Blues lose the lineout on their own throw, and Olly Robinson makes the tackle on Zebre’s first phase turnover ball.

Straight away Josh Turnbull and Ellis Jenkins slot into their positions either side of the breakdown, with Zebre opting to go left and running straight into Ellis who, with the help of Jarrod Evans before Robinson joined this time, holds the opposition player up and get possession back.

I could list three or four more examples of the back row slotting into this formation and defending the line successfully or disrupting Zebre attacks, but I’m sure you’re getting the point by now.

The performance of Robinson, Jenkins and Turnbull was unquestionably a key factor in the Cardiff Blues win on Sunday, possibly even the game winning aspect of the 80 minutes. On a weekend when many thought we might miss the influence of Big Nick Williams, they stood up to be counted superbly.

Of course Big Nick may well slot back into the starting XV if he is fit in time for Friday’s visit of Benetton to the Arms Park. However, the partnership of Jenkins and Robinson at flanker may well give Danny Wilson food for thought, especially after the success of the three openside setup we adopted at the end of last season.

Whoever gets the nod over the next few weeks though, the back row stocks at Cardiff Blues are looking very healthy indeed, and I certainly want it that way. Come on Cardiff!


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