Often a bastion of splendid isolation, an enigmatic and potent attacking force and the foundation on which the last defensive hope can rest, the position of full back can fairly be considered a glamorous one.
It is certainly a coveted spot in which to ply your trade as a professional. The allure of the 15 jersey might not quite boast the lustre of a 10, but then that depends on the nature of the person wearing it.
That splendid isolation. as a back. for both, certainly comes from knowing that no-one else on the pitch is wearing your number, or doing your job. You are pivotal to the action, an impact player.
Matt Perry is a man who Bath Rugby supporters will remember with fondness for eternity. He proudly won 36 caps for England, three for the Lions in Australia in 2001, and made an eye watering 221 appearances scoring 561 points for Bath Rugby between 1995 and his enforced retirement in 2007, at that point the Club’s longest serving player.
A third generation Club man to the core, wearing the shirt after father Brendan and grandfather Idris, he was of course part of the 1998 side that first won the Heineken Cup on behalf of British clubs.
“I think now from 1 to 15 the players are just as good as each other. What that means, is that when I was playing at full back there was a great opportunity of looking up and spotting a couple of the fat boys on one side of the pitch in a bit of space, and running towards them!” laughs the 37 year-old Group Performance Director.
“I think now the space and time that a full back has to make the decision is a lot less, so that time has really been cut down purely because of the fitness of the players.“
Attacking opportunities are fewer then, in the modern game for a marauding free spirit at 15. Matt concurs, saying,
“With defensive patterns now, no longer can a full back hit that traditional full back line. You used to be able to enjoy a bit of space in that wide channel, but it feels now as if defences are so good at the push, the up and across, that there is limited space in that channel.”
It was always an all round position, attracting the more complete footballer, but never more so than now, argues Matt, saying that the responsibilities in defence and attack are pivotal to a side’s chances of victory.
“You have to be excellent positionally, but you have to be good at the breakdown, particularly in attack,” he says.
“No longer can a full back go and shield the ball or run away from the breakdown! They have to be very strong technically to keep the ball or clean players out in the contact situation. They are almost more like a back row.
“They are physically a lot stronger, Mike Brown is a good example of that. With the pace of the game, and defences, they have much more all round skill now. You can’t just be seen as a runner, you have to be a good kicker. You have to be more astute in what you do.”
The way the game is officiated too, means a full back must have some serious power in the upper body to deal with the mess of the breakdown and the physical confrontation of the contact area. It is crucial that a modern full back make a couple of yards in contact, and not go backwards, as the side with momentum in the ruck often gets the nod from the man in the middle.
“Look at the tackle area. Years ago one player would go in, and there would be a momentary lapse as more players would come in and try and get the ball. Now it seems it’s a three man tackle,” he says.
“You can step, but if you get hit low, someone will come in high and then someone will come in to try and take the ball. It means that now, more so than ever, a full-back really has to get his team on the front foot.
“They have to be strong in the upper body, to take players on and keep the momentum going for a couple more seconds, without going down too early, because it’s not just a one man tackle, three men are on you.”
Matt fondly remembers his old mate Iain Balshaw, and the competition in his Bath side for the shirt spurring on the team to be just that - a collective sum of all its excellent parts.
“One of the things I’m proudest of in terms of playing, is my good mate Iain Balshaw.
“We came from Bath United together and became two British Lions full backs. We got ourselves into an environment where we were friends, but we were competitive. We were ambitious.
“We worked out at a young age that we were more interested in the team winning, whether it was Bath or England. I used to wear 15, but he wanted to play full back so we had a collaboration straight away. I’d step in at 10, Mike Catt at 12, Balsh at 15, the numbers on our back, well, from quite a young age we figured out that we could succeed, playing in the same team.”
And as for his best foe on the field? Aptly, given the weekend that’s in it, an All Black, Matt says in closing,
“The best I played against without doubt was Christian Cullen. He was a hero of mine. He was a natural footballer, a really good bloke, he had pace, he had guile, an offload, and he was defensively really strong!”
Interview by Patrick J.Lennon
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