Pollard at 12??
Last weekend we saw Handré Pollard wearing the 12 jersey for the first time. He played inside centre to Marnitz Boshoff at flyhalf for their Bulls outfit.
Whilst the Bulls lost their game, the experiment with Pollard at centre might be called something of a qualified success.
Pollard was given a bit more room to move than he usually gets in the flyhalf berth, and we already know that he likes to take the ball to the opposition, either breaking the defensive line, or offloading to a support runner. He already adds an extra dimension to the flyhalf berth with his slick running and passing skills, and the extra space and time he gets from the 12 position provides even more running opportunities.
Although at 12, he still controlled possession, tactics, the flow of the game, and the Bulls outside backs, leaving Boshoff to play the role of a mere link and tactical kicker.
In my coaching days I came across a number of coaches who favoured variations of this approach. The flyhalf was used as an almost static link who simply received the ball and passed it to one or the other side. His job was simply that of a distributor of quick ball and tactical kicker. The game would be called and controlled by the player, or players, standing on either side of the 10. There was some merit in this system, especially off set-pieces and at the ruck, as the offside line in those bad old days allowed loose-forwards to get to the flyhalf much quicker than they do under the current laws.
(The approach was a variation of the French system of the 1970’s and 80’s of Pass-Pass-Run, with the intention of taking the ball away from pressure as quickly as possible, and then having the outside backs run onto the ball at pace.)
A number of people have previously suggested that this is a logical move for Pollard. Give a team two playmakers rather than one. After the weekend’s game my initial reaction was that this could be a very good idea for the Springboks, with the likes of Rob du Preez at flyhalf as the tactical distributor and kicker, and Pollard outside him.
Du Preez likes to take the ball flat, as does Pollard, which brings to mind that great Aussie back division when Mark Ella ran the show from 10. They took the ball flat and then quickly up to the oncoming defensive lines, providing opportunity for a line break that would send a support runner away before the cover defence could get across.
The real difference, of course, is that Mark Ella played at 10, and did not have another natural flyhalf inside him. There was only one playmaker, and it was Ella.
(I am not sure that the dual playmaker system would work with Elton Jantjies at 10, he is a great playmaker going forward, but he does not handle pressure well and falls back into a deep pocket when the going gets tough, which completely negates any advantage one would get from having a 12 that likes quick, flat ball.).
As I pondered the possibilities of Pollard at 12, a niggling thought started to tickle in the back of my mind. This system was tried by the All Blacks, and very quickly abandoned. Why?
Back in 2008, the All Blacks knew they had to develop their options at flyhalf as a back-up to Dan Carter.
They brought Stephen Donald into their squad, but used him exclusively off the bench. He was being developed as the natural successor to Carter, should something happen to Dan.
Towards the end of 2008 the All Blacks played the Aussies in a game in Hong Kong. And that is where they tried the two flyhalves system!
The All Black brains trust selected Donald at 10 and Carter at 12 to give themselves those two playmakers.
A number of the travelling rugby media questioned the wisdom of the selection – Why move the best playmaker in the squad out wide of the critical decision making position in the first place? Many predicted that the experiment would fail, and it did.
Dan Carter was a little lost at 12 as the Aussies turned up the pressure, and he simply couldn’t get into the game. Stephen Donald was a great flyhalf, but he was no Dan Carter, and he wasn’t controlling the game the way the All Blacks needed. At half time the Wallabies were ahead 14 – 9.
Dan Carter shifted to the flyhalf berth after 45 minutes and the All Blacks immediately began to take control of the game. They started to play off the front foot and surged past the Wallabies to win the game 19 to 14.
The All Blacks have never tried the two-playmaker system again. Their focus is on a single primary playmaker who provides the rest of the team the go-forward ball, from which each player is encouraged to be enterprising and innovative. The entire back division is allowed to be playmakers, working off the single pivot.
Perhaps there is a lesson in there?
Maybe the idea of Pollard at 12 is not really such a great idea?