The hallowed number nine jersey is rarely claimed by a quiet, shy man. To be a scrum-half it requires a pinch of tenacity, a sprinkle of personality and normally a dollop of bravery as the smallest man on the field. What makes the role so fascinating is just how different opposing nines can be.
There’s the classic ‘petit general’ made famous by a long list of majestic French players like Dimitri Yachvili, Jean-Baptiste Ellisalde and Morgan Parra who enjoy the luxury of an armchair ride behind a marauding pack of giants. Will Genia and Aaron Smith are more active scrum-halves who bring people into the game wonderfull, tirelessly picking out runners in the Rugby Championship.
Regardless of the style, a nine’s influence or lack of is almost always obvious on the field. They set the tempo, they control the speed and they are your side’s heartbeat. The Aviva Premiership is bledded with a truly first-rate set of scrum-halves. Each man paints a picture of how their team plays. To understand the nine, is to understand a philosophy.
The Pace Setter
Whilst some teams prefer to have a scrum-half who threatens with ball in hand, others prioritise game management and control. The newly signed Nic White at Exeter must be very content with the amount of cleanly recycled ball he is enjoying at Sandy Park. Having such a muscular, hardworking pack means that he as the nine doesn’t have to rush any of his work. He is more than happy to sit back, relax and let the donkeys kick down the door. White carefully pulls in defenders around the breakdown by letting his forwards carry before unleashing his outside backs. He knows how to control the pace of the game and expertly builds momentum through his forwards before kick-starting a more offensive style.
Another who is directing his team brilliantly by alternating between controlled and dynamic tempos, is Newcastle Falcons’ Sonatane Takulua. One of the players of last season, the Tongan loves to benefit from an extremely effective driving maul and scrum which Dean Richards has solidified as head coach. Newcastle are slowly becoming an extremely hard team to breakdown and Takulua loves moving his forwards around like chess pieces on a board. Like the classic French scrum-halves, he kicks his conversions as well. Brendan McKibbin at London Irish is trying to copy the influence of both Takulua and White. Unfortunately, he hasn’t had any ball to thrive off and has therefore struggled early on in the season.
A prop forwards nightmare. Picture it now: You’re a tight head prop on the 65th minute, awaiting an imminent substitution, hands on hips and as you count down the clock to a well-earnt break. Next thing you know, Danny Care has dummied and ducked under a loose arm and your side are under the sticks, bemoaning lazy defence. The Harlequins legend has made a name for himself scurrying around the fringes, arching around sluggish guard defenders and spotting mismatches. The England man struggles in matches that turn into arm wrestles in the rain. Yet when Harlequins get quick ball and go through the phases Care can be unplayable. Loves popping up with tries out of nothing.
At Wasps Dan Robson and Joe Simpson are both whippets who have the pace of a winger and keep any defence honest. Their gas means that they are often seen joining backs moves off first phase ball. Flankers struggle to match their acceleration permitting Wasps to manoeuvre an overlap out wide. This type of player has normally been told by their coach to pick up the tempo especially against sides who have heavy forward packs. If the scum halves can shift these packs from one side of the pitch to the other quickly, legs will tire and holes will emerge. At both Harlequins and Wasps, their forwards are fit and accustomed to playing at break neck speeds. This style encourages nines like Care and Robson to take quick taps from penalties and not let anyone get any rest. Cheeky players who prosper in open, expansive games.
Obviously a scrum-half starting for a Premiership club should be able to run, kick, pass and defend in equal measure. But normally they tend to lack in a certain area favouring a certain aspect of the art of scrum-half play. Then you have players like Ben Youngs who have sharpened all the tools in their arsenal. Youngs may not have the out and out speed of Dan Robson, or quite the same control as Richard Wigglesworth but the way he varies and adapts his game make him a world-class all-rounder. Youngs probably has the second best pass off the ground in world rugby. Behind only the master himself Aaron Smith of New Zealand. The way he fizzes the ball through the air to George Ford rushes defensive lines and tests the drift defence. His kicks are accurate, he loves a dart and defends bravely.
Kahn Fortuali’i is another man who doesn’t seem to have weaknesses in his game. Unpredictable islanders like Fortuali’i often get earmarked as mavericks who are prone to errors but he is insanely consistent for Bath. Mixes up his box of tricks, often seen taking two steps away from the breakdown and inviting runners to hit a line off his inside shoulder. Being able to rely on variation means that opposition sides cannot second guess the nine. It is a safe bet that Richard Wigglesworth is going to kick in his own half eight times out of ten whereas Fortuali’i and Youngs can strike from anywhere. They aren’t afraid to try something new. Like a Swiss army knife they are adaptable and can be used in so many different ways.
The Main Man
At both Worcester and Sale it is clear that their scrum-half is the fulcrum of their team without whom they are lost. The two South Africans Faf De Klerk and Francois Hougaard are the heart, lungs and soul of their respective sides. Hougaard won Worcester games all on his own last year. The lack of strike runners in their back division mean that Hougaard is one of their main try-scoring weapons and without him they look out of ideas. His absence at the beginning of this Premiership season has been blatantly obvious. Jonny Arr and Peter Stringer are unfussy passers who go through the motions but a Worcester side with Hougaard is immediately more potent. Their lack of invention and tries early on in the season is a testament to how much they need Hougaard back calling the shots.
Faf De Klerk on the other hand is a new acquisition. Similarly, though, Sale look to be relying on his influence to get them through games. He even started at fly-half for last weekend’s fixture against Saracens as a replacement for the injured AJ MacGinty. Sale want his hands on the ball as much as possible. At time it has looked like he is trying to do too much. On a few occasions, he has been guilty of eating up space with ball in hand when perhaps he should offload some of the burden to the players around him. At times these two can be game changers but the pressure of being the side’s heartbeat can take its toll.
The Double act
For some sides, the man coming off the bench can be an equally important component of the game-plan as the man who started. The perfect example is Richard Wigglesworth at Saracens. He has potentially the most cultured boot in the premiership with his hanging box kicks swirling in the wind for his wingers to chase. His measured kicks put immense pressure on the opposition either leading to defensive lineouts or knock-ons. Essentially this gives Saracens opportunities to pressurize the opposition set piece and retain possession. Conveniently, when stronger opponents such as Exeter are coping with Wigglesworth’s pressure game they bring on Ben Spencer off the bench to give Saracens new shape and energy. Having two scrum-halves with such starkly different styles can help Saracens when they need to chase a game. They can opt for composure and rhythm or an accelerated burst of dynamism off the bench.
Will Heinz at Gloucester is captaining the side brilliantly at the moment. His all action displays have been responsible for at least two assists in the opening four games of the season and his scramble defence should not be underrated. However, Gloucester have a secret weapon on the bench. The sevens whizz kid Ben Vellacott looks absolutely electric. He gives the Cherry and Whites a much needed shot of adrenaline when the clock reaches the red zone. Finally, there is the Northampton duo of South Africans Nic Groom and Cobus Reinach. They play an identical brand of rugby, they’re both very tidy and they look eerily similar to boot. It will be really interesting to see the two arm wrestle for the starting berth as the season develops. The quality will not dip at all regardless of who starts and it will be fascinating to see if Jim Mallinder rotates between them.
It’s great to see such a deep talent pool at number nine in the Aviva Premiership. Fly-Halves take the glory, flankers are the brave warriors and props are cult icons. However, don’t ignore the little guys. They might be small but they have a huge responsibility.