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27th Mar 2024

In any World’s Best XV, these two need be in the back row

Patrick McCarry

Caelan Doris

The bigger debates would be what flanker to select with them, or who gets the 8 jersey.

In researching a recent article on the most effective back row combinations in world rugby, over the past two years, I pored over some Opta stats and two names kept cropping up – Ardie Savea and Caelan Doris.

Heading into the 2023 World Cup quarter final, a debate raged as to which of the two men was the best No.8 in world rugby. Doris had won three of his previous four Test encounters with New Zealand and it was almost an even split in the ‘Combined XV’ pieces that were doing the rounds.

As we now know, Savea and the All Blacks won the day. Sam Cane salvaged a Test match reputation, in the space of one epic shift, that had taken a kicking for the previous three years. Shannon Frizzell was a handful, and then som, but it was Savea that emerged as the guy that settled the argument.

Not ever Irish player covered themselves in glory, that night in Paris. Many were fair to good, when great and beyond was required. Doris was one player that did have a fine game. Unfortunately for him, and Ireland, his fumble from an All Blacks kick, under scant pressure, is a game image that stands out, in between a missed Sexton penalty and Jordie Barrett holding up Rónan Kelleher try close-call. That Will Jordan try was pretty incredible, too, from a Kiwi perspective.

Speaking to Doris, late last year, he was keen to stress that Ireland knew the All Blacks would be a couple of levels up from the side they had beaten in a three-Test series in the summer of 2022.

“There were some things we feel we could have done better, regardless of what they were doing,” Doris reflected. “Then there are other things, through their pressure and opportunities and options, they took away from us.

“We were aware they had improved quite a bit since we beat them over there. We were aware it was going to be a different team, but we felt we’d made good steps and leaps forward since that series too. So, there was a lot of confidence going into the week, which, in some ways, makes it harder to take.”

The 2024 Six Nations brought a new No.8 into the mix – Saracens and England star Ben Earl. Combative, effective and celebratory, for the big wins and small, he is a new Test force to be reckoned with. Earl is 26 now but has benefitted from a big show of faith afforded him by Steve Borthwick and paid his coach back.

In selecting any World XV, though, Caelan Doris and Ardie Savea must be in it. Earl is in the picture, but he is not there just yet. This is a fine break-through season as a regular in the England XV. It will be fascinating to see if he can maintain this form over the summer and into what will be a British & Irish Lions season (2024/25).

Caelan Doris
Ardie Savea of New Zealand and Caelan Doris’ Ireland. (Photo: Getty Images)

The perfect openside to compliment Caelan Doris and Ardie Savea

New Zealand use Ardie Savea as their back row live-wire. He is the guy given licence to attack and get the ABs going.

His attacking statistics are top in six of the 13 key metrics that defence the best back-rows: Tries scored (9), Try assists (9), Carries (267), Metres gained (937) Offloads, (31), Defenders beaten (71). If you look at that try involvements number of 18, the closest back row in world rugby, over the past two years, is Charles Ollivon with 8.

Caelan Doris (four tries, three assists) is just behind, tied with Shannon Frizell and Siya Kolisi. He tops those statistical charts for turnovers won (25) and defensive ruck arrivals (306). Added to his bag, now, is captaincy and on-field decision-making and strategising.

As the Six Nations played out, Doris captained Ireland for over three hours of their winning campaign. He started the Italy game as captain and played the full 80 in the other four games, usually leading Ireland home in the final 20 or 25 minutes when squad captain Peter O’Mahony would be replaced. His calmness and assuredness in the role, in a winning campaign, have him high up the list of potential British & Irish Lions captains, next summer.

The pair are slated to face off again, this November, when Ireland welcome New Zealand to Aviva Stadium. They could meet again during that 2025 Lions Tour, when the Wallabies and All Blacks are set to select a ‘Combined XV’ for a one-off Test.

As for the debate over who starts in what jersey, Savea gets No.8. He has not played blindside, for club or country, since the 2019 World Cup quarter final win over Ireland. Doris prefers 8 but has proved very effective at blindside. Eight of his Test starts have come in that position and he started there in last season’s Champions Cup semi and final, for Leinster. He plays openside less often but picked up a man-of-the-match award in his first Test start there (against Italy, last August).

Who to put in that World’s Best XV back row? There are five quality options – Charles Ollivon, Siya Kolisi, Josh van der Flier, Gregory Alldritt and Pieter Steph du Toit (just outside than fistful are Juan Martin Gonzalez, Jac Morgan and Ben Earl).

Caelan Doris

Completing our World Best back row

France and South Africa often buck the trend with their 6 and 7 selections. To that end, Springbok No.6 Siya Kolisi is the work-horse while Pieter Steph du Toit is the defensive and line-speed tempo setter. It was du Toit, for example that went hunting Finn Russell in the World Cup pool stage win over Scotland.

France tend to do likewise, with Francois Cros doing the donkey work and freeing up the likes of Charles Ollivon and Gregory Alldritt to cut loose.

In our back row, we are going with the best man for the job, Pieter Steph du Toit, and cutting our cloth accordingly.

Ardie Savea is our tyro – getting through a fair pile of work around the ruck but mainly being deployed as an attacking weapon. Du Toit and Caelan Doris should get to have some fun with ball-in-hand but will be hitting more rucks and making the harder carries, with less open space in front of them.

The one area teams might reckon they could target that combination could be the lineout but Doris (38) and du Toit (29) are still in the world’s Top 10, over the past two years, for lineout claims.

The beauty of this challenge is the wealth of options available. Come and let us know if you feel you have a more dangerous, more well-rounded back row combination.


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