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.

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