Depth charts show way to Six Nations title and could give Ireland the edge
With injuries inevitable, coaches need to know who their next cab off the rank is in each key position and Ireland have the system best placed to succeed
When the Six Nations starts we’ll all enjoy picking and poking over team selection and tactics, how the benches have been used and how the coaches have drawn on all their nous to get the results they need. But one thing you won’t hear much about may end up being one of the most important factors of all in deciding the championship – the depth chart.
Every nation will have a spreadsheet with each position on it and then the first choice, second choice, third choice and so on. Often it’s also colour-coded red, amber and green – a “RAG” depth chart. Green would mean world class, amber international class and red club class. You want as many green and ambers as possible and it’s a good rule of thumb that a side with real aspirations of winning a Six Nations or certainly a Rugby World Cup would need at least five or more players in that green category.
As a coach you work out the permutations for in-game casualties but it’s the injuries that mean a player misses a round, or rounds, that will test teams the most, and this is where the depth chart comes in.
In my days at Twickenham these charts were an almost daily conversation topic. You need to see who is the next cab off the rank. I remember seeing one chart in 2010-11 with all the players neatly aligned by position and pecking order on magnetic strips. Below all the names, way down behind the water cooler, was a name the planners had obscured from their gaze and thus their thoughts. Who was this insanely talented No 10? Danny Cipriani.
Sometimes the depth chart can be the most important tool of all, as the All Blacks discovered in 2011. Step forward their unlikely hero Stephen Donald, New Zealand’s fourth-choice (at best) fly-half plucked from the banks of the Waikato River and into the World Cup final where he won the game with a wobbly second-half penalty.
Normally you look at the spine of the team and how much cover and competition you have there. Hooker, No 8, half-backs and full-back. However, some positions are just as important to a team tactically when you consider all their other positions and strength.
For me what’s more important is any position or player who significantly controls decisions for that team. Ireland are the most organised phase team in the world and anyone who comes in needs to know what’s going on in detail. If suddenly they were to have a fly-half crisis, then the equivalent scenario of calling up Donald from a fishing trip and into the Test arena would be a stretch.
Ireland have very good depth across all their key players but losing Johnny Sexton or Conor Murray for a prolonged period would hurt them, although their systems might just still nurse them through to a Six Nations title. That’s where their processes actually help them.
The same cannot be said about their first opponents, England. Whatever Eddie Jones has up his sleeve, Owen Farrell will help him whip it out and drive it. But they just do not have someone in their planning who can have the same impact. For me that’s why Cipriani would have been in the training squad and very much part of everything.
Billy Vunipola is another world-class player you just can’t replace to the same level against the best in the world. Just as in the World Cup, there are easier games in this Six Nations and players will need to be rested when they can to avoid any increased chance of injury.
Ireland and England have the cover everywhere else to absorb a raft of injuries except in those talismanic numbers. Wales losing Toby Faletau was a big blow and it is a Six Nations theme that the No 8 position is so crucial to many of the sides. Sergio Parisse and Louis Picamoles are both big for their respective teams as well as their “mana” – a Pacific Islands term for their standing and influence on and off the field. Jake Polledri being injured for Italy is a big blow and a good example of how, even though you might have a depth chart, a serious lack of international quality remains a point of difference.
Wales are serious title contenders and much will depend on their opening match against France but with Warren Gatland’s men leadership and experience are also things that need to be thought about when injuries occur. With Leigh Halfpenny out and Liam Williams also a doubt they can’t lose someone of the calibre of Alun Wyn Jones if they are going to have the success they yearn for.
Scotland will benefit from the success of their two regions, Edinburgh and Glasgow, and their team cohesion and well-worn combinations may protect them slightly from a raft of injuries but the front five is an area they will hope is less afflicted as the numbers are just not there to deal successfully with any losses.
Finally there is France, who need to work out their pecking order. It is that simple for them. Back a consistent group of starters and, if they do, the talent is there to cause real problems to everyone else. Twists and turns aplenty await.
Ben Ryan coached Fiji to the nation’s first Olympic medal of any kind when the Sevens team took gold in Rio in 2016. He is now a consultant to a number of leading sports organisations including the French Rugby Federation and UK Sport.