Long Time Passing
South African rugby is in something of a quandary. We have a fullback of real international quality, we have two, three perhaps, flyhalves of true international quality. In fact we have some outstanding players of international quality in all positions in a team, except one. We do not seem to have much in the way of scrumhalves.
I can hear the cocking levers on hunting rifles and the sound of knives being sharpened! How dare I say that Fourie du Preez/Jaco Reinach/Ruan Pienaar/Faf de Klerk are not of international quality? Without a doubt each of those players has his fan-club full of adoring admirers who are convinced that their player is potentially the best in the world. They will argue vehemently and with blind passion that their hero just needs a chance…
Let’s just examine the facts:
Fourie du Preez WAS the best scrumhalf in the world back in 2007. That was 2007 and this is 2015. Eight years on and he has not shown anything at all to prove that he is still right up there with the best. Playing club rugby in Japan is simply not an adequate battleground to provide any measurement of form and fitness. Yes, Fourie was a superb scrumhalf, but so was Joost van der Westhuizen and Danie Craven. Fourie has not played any form of competitive rugby for months, and has not played really high-level rugby for years. Can we simply choose him on a reputation built 8 years ago?
Jaco Reinach was playing some good rugby when he was rewarded with a Bok cap last year. In 2015 he has not shown anything near the form that earned him that call-up and has not played serious rugby for months. A run on in the dying moments of a test match is not sufficient to build match fitness or form. What little we have seen has not been inspiring stuff. He has been criticised for being too slow off the mark, his kicking is off the mark, and his passing has become wayward.
Ruan Pienaar is steady, but without any special flair. He is often criticised for being too slow and kicking too much. As a designated kicker in the team I would suggest that his kicking is under instruction from the coaches, but he certainly has lost a couple of yards of his younger pace. His quickness off the mark is also missing. Some of his passing has been a little wayward in 2015. His age is showing. There is much talk about Ruan being experienced in the slower, wet conditions of English rugby and that he is best suited to the kind of rugby expected in the coming world cup. Unless the weather gods change their regular patterns the World Cup will be played at the end of the northern summer and the fields are likely to be hard and fast!
Faf de Klerk has his fans, and I am one of them. BUT, he is unproven on the highest stage, and has a penchant for indiscipline that could cost his team dearly in a tight game. He shows some flair around the fringes and has the quickest pass in South African rugby. Sadly, he is still not the complete package. He needs to control those maverick moments, and he needs to learn to read a game.
The only other possible candidate is that fellow Francois Hougaard, who did not get a starting berth at 9 for his Bulls franchise in 2015, having been sent out to do his job on the wing. (And he did it very well!!) A useful and wholly committed player with the heart of a lion, and some faults in his make-up, he seems to have sent to the scrapheap. Sadly, as he was probably the best young scrumhalf to come through the schools system in the last 20 years, unfortunately his natural game has been suppressed and modified by his franchise to the point where all that youthful flair and enterprise was been coached right out of him.
South Africa has a problem at scrumhalf. Period.
The question must be asked: Why can we produce so many world-class players in every position, yet we struggle to produce real quality at scrumhalf?
I have spent many hours pondering this issue and I have come to the conclusion that the fault lies in two areas.
Firstly: Schools level rugby has become hyper-competitive with a win-at-all-costs mentality ruling the game at all times. This is a very unfortunate state of affairs as the “fun” aspect of the game has been suppressed in favour of the win. School teams are drilled and drilled to play low risk “winning” rugby with little encouragement or recognition of raw unadulterated flair. I have watched my share of schools rugby over the years and the game has become more and more sterile as each year passes. The most recent Craven Week was a prime example of how little truly exciting flair and unpredictability was on display.
The flow-over of this issue is that every schoolboy with a hankering for a professional rugby career trains himself and is trained and coached into becoming a rugby automaton, doing all the “right” things as well as possible with a zero error and zero risk approach in order to catch the eye of those roving talent scouts. Nobody recruits a 50/50 player, even when the positive 50 is made up of some hugely exciting flair and unpredictability.
A secondary aspect of this issue is our unremitting focus on size. We want great big monsters in our teams, physical specimens that look like candidates for a Mr Universe competition. The big guys might be strong, but they are not always the most talented or fleet of foot. The system precludes some of those much smaller players who are quick of hand and foot, and often quick of mind too.
Witness the behemoth SA U/20 team of the World Cup a few weeks ago. They could only play one style of rugby, based on a power pack smashing, grunting, and trundling forwards. The moment that pack was held in check (by England) and the game spread wide, the Bokkies had no answers. Why? Because they have been drilled into stylistic submission!
The second area where blame can be laid for our lack of real scrumhalf talent and sharpness of play can be found in the old school style of South African rugby during the last two decades.
Our game has essentially revolved around two simple tactics – the first is to crash the ball up the middle, using trundling forwards or behemoth centres to run into the heavy traffic and then go to ground to recycle the ball, protected by a wall of forwards. Some like to wax lyrical about “going through the phases” and “superb ball retention” but the reality is that it is a slow grinding game, and it does not encourage linking play based of fleet-footedness and taking the ball away from contact at speed. This is not new, it has been around since Ian Mac focussed on smashing the ball up the middle.
The alternative to the crashball has been the Jakeball system of tactical kicks – box kicks by the scrumhalf and aerial bombs by the flyhalf. Kick and pressurise is the name of the game.
Our scrumhalves have become inculcated into a broken play style of popping a short pass to a pod of forwards, who trundle on and go to ground, making just a couple of meters at best. The scrum half does not have to follow the play or the ball at pace, he often just walks behind the pod and waits for the ball. He does not have to cycle the ball out at speed and with quick or long passes. Safety first! Secure the ball slowly, ensuring another pod of forwards is ready to take the pop pass, and then let it go. The only real variation to this system is for the scrumhalf to launch one of the never-ending box kicks.
The scrumhalf is no longer a playmaker, he is simply a recycler, and this does not need rugby vision or flair.
Long passes by the scrumhalf are only found from the base of the scrum or when a ball is passed down from the top of the jump at a lineout. Almost all other passes are shorter and, consequently, slower.
You might suggest that I am exaggerating the issue slightly, but I think you get the picture. Our scrumhalves have been drilled into playing an essentially slower style of rugby, and it shows in their skill set! Very few are prepared to break with the ball at pace, and very few are able to play an open attacking style. I cannot think of anyone of the current crop that is truly explosive off the mark. (Maybe Nick Mallet’s call for Cheslin Kolbe to consider the 9 jersey is a good one?)
Compare the running and support play lines of a TJ Perenara or an Aaron Smith with those of a Reinach or Pienaar. The two New Zealanders are try-scoring machines who constantly pop up in support of their wide runners to take that critical final pass. South African scrumhalves do not run those lines, because they have been drilled into a more conservative role! How many times do you see Perenara or Smith back in their 22 fielding a high kick? They are happy to leave this job to their back three and perhaps a flyhalf. Watch the South Africans and see how often they fall back into the extra defender role rather than attacking at all times.
It is a mindset. South African scrumhalves play low risk rugby. (And you can change that to slow risk rugby!)
Another indicator of the difference between the two types of scrumhalf play can be spotted in the number of times an SA 9 actually charges down a kick, versus the number of charge downs achieved by scrumhalves who play more attacking less rigidly disciplined rugby. The SA 9 is just that split-second slower off the mark.
We need to completely reassess the way we play the game and what we expect of our scrumhalves.
Whilst I am not a specialist scrumhalf coach, I can comment from more than 20 years of coaching experience. There are some things we need to reassess and refocus.
What are a scrumhalf’s core skills?
Perhaps the first and most important of all skills a scrumhalf must master is to be able to pass the ball. Passing is one of the core rugby skills for all players, but it is the single most important core skill and positional skill of the scrumhalf. An effective No 9 must to get quick accurate ball to his receivers, be it the backs or the forwards. He must be able to pass with either hand. He must be able to pass off the ground and from the hips, or even overhead if needs be. He must be able to pass with one hand or both. Left or right. He must be able to pass long and pass short. He must be able to pass with supreme accuracy and speed. Reverse passes and scissors passes, they are all necessary skills for a good scrumhalf.
Passes, all of them, must be quick and accurate! Perhaps the most important aspect of any scrumhalf’s pass has to be the quickness of hands. A slow cock-and-fire kind of pass is a recipe for disaster. Just that extra half-second before release gives an explosive loose forward three or four yards of extra distance towards the intended receiver! The pass has to be quick, really quick.
Critical to the accuracy and speed of the pass it the foot positioning of the 9. I have watched far too many scrumhalves get themselves tangled up in their own legs or trying to pass off-balance. This is not rocket science but it is essential stuff and needs to be practiced over and over and over again.
The next critical core skill that a good scrumhalf needs is an ability to read the game. He must be able to scan the field on the run and when setting up to gather the ball at the ruck or maul. He should not attempt to do this once he is over the ball! This is the single biggest failing of modern South African style Number 9s. Once the ball is controlled at the base of the ruck or maul, they pause to look around. All the advantage of speed and surprise is lost in that instant. This should be semi-instinctive play, not a slow observational pause in the game! He must know where he wants to go with the ball, or where the ball should go before he gets the ball! If a scrumhalf does not have the tactical nous to read the game, he will never be a good scrumhalf. Fourie du Preez, in his prime, was one of the best readers of the game ever. Will Genia was another. George Gregan was superb in his ability to read and predict the direction of play.
Coupled to the ability to read a game the scrumhalf must also adopt a leadership role on the field. He must be able to direct his forwards on the drive, in the rucks and in the mauls. He must be aware of possible opportunities close in and wide out and must be able to take the decision and force the play. This is the role of the scrumhalf as the “Little General” who directs much of the broken play direction and tactics of his team. Importantly, the scrumhalf must be able to communicate what he sees, and what he does!
A core skill that is often neglected at practice and in play is the scrumhalf’s speed off the mark. Whether stepping back to box-kick or kick for touch, whether setting up to pass, or whether taking off on the run, the scrumhalf should be the quickest man off the mark in the entire team! The faster he moves, the less time the opponent has to counter his moves! This essential quickness must be practiced, honed and nurtured right through his career.
The next essential skill, perhaps more important that I can possibly emphasize is the scrumhalf’s ability to follow the ball. A good scrumhalf is always up with the ball. If the game breaks down and goes to ground he simply has to be there to pick up and keep momentum going. A good scrumhalf is always up with the ball – an exceptional scrumhalf is first to the ball, often as the first defender or the first arriving player. This requires pace, and supreme fitness. An exceptional scrumhalf covers most of his ground at a sprint!
A scrumhalf must also be able to tackle, and tackle, and tackle again. He must be able to tackle his opponent, and then he needs to take on the heavyweights too! A scrumhalf who does not tackle is a liability.
The final core skill a scrumhalf needs is a good boot for kicking. And I do not just mean box-kicking although that is a very important aspect of his game! The scrumhalf must be able to kick for touch off the base of a scrum or lineout. He must be able to box kick accurately, long or short. A somewhat neglected skill is the scrumhalf’s ability to grubber kick around the base of a ruck or scrum. This has been a superb attacking kick over the years, but we see very few scrumhalves using this option anymore. A ball rolling, skidding and bouncing along the ground towards a defender is very difficult to field and defend.
Scrumhalves thrive on being able to outthink, outwit and outplay their opponents. To do this they have to be able to think and act quickly. It is split second stuff and it is lacking in our South African scrumhalves at the moment.
The scrum half must have one of the most well rounded skill sets in the entire team, being able to kick, tackle and pass, think and lead, read the game and run. All of them all of the time, and in split second moments.
Importantly, these skills can be built up over time, practiced and refined, but only if the entire game plan of a team allows the scrumhalf that freedom of movement and enterprise.
We certainly have the core material in South Africa, we just need to loosen the reigns and style constrictions somewhat and allow natural flair back into the game.
Let the scrumhalf loose, let slip the dogs of war!
made some comments in response but I thought the whole topic of box kicks was one worth expanding on including why the box kick is important, the technique involved and the role of the players forming the screen in front of the kicker.
Why use a box kick?
The most common use for a box kick is as an exit option from within the 22 where the ball can be kicked directly into touch.
But why use a box kick instead of a pass to a kicker behind the line who should have more time and angle to make a longer kick? There are two answers to this question; the pass back to a kicker nullifies some of the potential distance gain over a box kick; and the other players are normally in front of the kicker so can’t start chasing until they are put on side.
The following images show a typical situation where a box kick is normally the preferred choice from last year’s match between England and New Zealand. However, in this case the deep kicking option was used and New Zealand had three chasers ready to apply pressure.
As well as being used as an exit option, many teams use the box kick further up field. New Zealand regularly use the box kick to put up a high ball in mid-field. They don’t look for distance with these kicks – their aim is to make them contestable for the chasers. Again, using the box kick as opposed to a deep kicker gives the chasers a better starting position as you can see in the following example.
This box kick is not a defensive kick and is not kicking possession away. It’s part of the game plan and there was obviously a call made so that the chasers knew what was on and could time their runs. The fact that it is so well executed is not luck – all of the skills involved will be practiced regularly.
A box kick is also a really good option when a turnover is achieved. Whenever a team is attacking their fullback and wingers will be close to the attacking line looking to get involved. On a turnover they have to turn and try and get into a deeper position to cover any line break or kick by the opposition.
The time taken for a kicker to get into a position behind the ball and for the ball to be passed back often gives the opposition back three the time they need to get back into position. However a box kick from where the ball is turned over can be made immediately and from a good flat position. This usually means that there is insufficient time for the back three to recover.
Here’s a good example from last year’s Super Rugby final where the Brumbies won the ball from a Chiefs lineout. Nic White kicks immediately the ball is available. You can see in the background that Jesse Mogg, who would have been a good deep kicking option, isn’t in position yet and if White had waited for him the opportunity that arises may have been missed.
Although the scrum half is often the smallest player on the pitch, they are also amongst one of the most tenacious. A good number 9 needs to have strong on-field leadership skills to help manage their teams play and be able to influence the referee without becoming a nuisance. The scrum half must also be amongst the fittest players on the pitch as they will need to run from ruck to ruck to distribute the ball.
well on either sidewith all three of these skill sets being regularly tested throughout a match. The scrum half is a key leader of the pack and must be the eyes for their forwards during rucks and scrums making decisions for them and distributing them around the field in attack and defence.
The actual build of a scrum half isn’t really that important in the modern game with number 9’s coming in all shapes and sizes. Whilst Mike Phillips is big enough to play in the back row of his forwards, many other scrum halves are significantly smaller than other members of their team. Ideally a scrum half shouldn’t be too big as they will be required to do a lot of explosive running but must still be large enough to bring down any member of the oppositions team.
In The Loose
The scrum half has a variety of roles to play whilst the ball is in the loose. One of their key roles is the distribution of the ball from the base of the ruck. After the forwards have secured the ball the scrum half will pick the ball up from the base to either recycle it through their forwards or distribute it out to their backs to run a play. In defensive rucks the scrum half will usually stand behind the ruck ready to defend against any player who may attempt to run over the top.
The scrum half may also opt to kick the ball either to try to gain territory or by utilising the box kick to allow their team to attempt to reclaim the ball after it is punted into the air. As a final alternative the scrum half may decide to run the ball themselves if they feel a gap has opened up in the opposition defensive line which would allow them to dart through.
Both in attack and defence the scrum half must organise their teams forwards, distributing them around the field to either create an opening in attack or to counter any potential opposition moves. In defence the scrum half will also often act as a kind of sweeper following the ball across the pitch ready to jump on any balls chipped over their teams defensive line or making a last ditch tackle on any opposition players who breakthrough.
In The Scrum
Although the scrum half isn’t actually in the scrum they still have an important role to play during the set-piece. On their own put in they will stand on the left hand side of the scrum and feed the ball in between their loosehead and the opposition tighthead. It is important the ball is fed in straight although the scrum half may provide their hooker with a signal that the ball is being put in so as to give their team the best chance of winning the ball back.
Once the ball has been hooked back to the feet of the number 8 the scrum half will move round to the back of the scrum ready to pick the ball up to kick or pass or support their number 8 should they pick up and go. During an opposition put-in the scrum half will follow the opposition 9 round to the back of the scrum but must remain on their teams side of the ball or risk being called as offside. Once the ball comes out of the back of the scrum the number 9 will then often be the first up tackler attempting to disrupt the opposition runners and ball players.
Whilst the forwards are bound in the scrum the number 9 becomes their eyes and will therefore be the key decision maker. The scrum half will have to alert their loose forwards to any potential dangers as players attempt to break off the scrum with the ball. They will also let the number 8 know whether there is an opposition to pick the ball up and make a run down either side of the scrum.
In The Line Out
The scrum half isn’t directly involved in the actual line-out but will often act as the distributor should their team win the ball. The scrum half must be ready to catch and knock-downs or grab the ball out of the hands of their forwards after it has been caught. Once the ball has been won the scrum half must again decide how best to distribute the ball, this may involve kicking, passing or calling on their forwards to carry it forward.
On defensive line outs the scrum half will often stand in the channel whilst the opposition hooker throws the ball into the set piece. This allows the scrum halves hooker to defend the back of the line out whilst the scrum half must defence the channel in front of the line out should and opposition players attempt to run down it.
In A Maul
The scrum half plays around the back of a maul in a very similar way to how they play around a ruck. Whilst the forwards will attempt to drive the maul forwards the scrum half will remain out of the maul but close at the back ready to receive the ball for distribution. Should the opposition hold the ball in a maul the scrum half will usually defend around the fringes of the maul ready to tackle and opposition runners.