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Scrumhalves: Make or break

The most pressing need of all positions in South African rugby is at scrumhalf. It is a serious need. Just watch the way the Springboks play and you know there is a huge problem.

Stephen Fry, a great Springbok flank of the first half of the 1950s, Springbok captain in 1955, brother of Dennis, a Springbok flyhalf, believed firmly that you should pick your scrumhalf first and then the rest of the team, and your best player should play scrumhalf.

The Springbok backs come in for much criticism. They are stodgy, not at all creative, and they starve their wings reducing them to ball-chasers – just chasers, not retrievers. But is the problem at flyhalf, centre, centre, wings, fullback?

Possession, we have been told, is nine tenths of the law. Possession is worth gold. Colin Meads once said: "I do not understand this talk about good ball and bad ball. There is either ball or no ball. If you have it, you can score and they can't."

But there is no doubt that the better the possession, the better the chance of scoring, and the alchemist who can turn ball into golden ball is the scrumhalf, just as he can also turn it to heavy, burdensome lead.

What makes possession better? It is speedy, controlled delivery that allows the backs to use space. World Rugby's Try of the Year was scored by the Springboks when they moved with speed and developed more and more space. The way they played there was miles away from the way they played against Ireland, Italy and Wales.

Let's accept speed and space as necessities for back play. The opposite – slowness and pressure – have the opposite effect. They are bad for back play. If you see backs being pressurised by fast-advancing defenders, you know something has gone wrong in this day of laws that seem determined to create more and more space for backs and to remove as much pressure from them as possible.

If your backs are under pressure, look to your halfbacks, those who get first use of the ball that the forwards provide. South Africa at one stage complained of a flyhalf crisis. That is over now. But they have a scrumhalf crisis all right.

Scrumhalves can play and let play. They play at source, making their decisions all the more important. They can run with the ball, they can pass the ball and they can kick the ball. How well they do those things determines how good they are.

The scrumhalf break can be so telling as he is right at the advantage line. Get through there and he can cause agony for the opponents. The flyhalf, who can have a wider vision can sometimes tip the scrumhalf off to break. The scrumhalf can also realise the speed of the game with a tap kick at a penalty and a free kick. Players like Sarel Pretorius and Aaron Smith who are always alive to running chances can work wonders for their sides.

Scrumhalves are often kickers – in more and more cases goal-kickers like Demetri Yachvili, Frédéric Michalak, Nic White and Morgan Parra. In kicking out of hand they can help to take pressure off the flyhalf, but they are not all as good as Fourie du Preez and some of the 'box kicking' is dangerous – for their own team – too long and a mere transfer of possession leaving the forwards to try to get possession back.

But the basic scrumhalf work is passing the ball which the forwards win – the more accurately and the quicker the better. If he is slow and/or inaccurate he puts pressure on his backs. And it is in his passing game – accurate and fast – that we should really judge a scrumhalf.

One of the ways for a scrumhalf to speed up his passing is by doing so immediately from the ground. When you see a scrumhalf running sideways before throwing the ball at his backs, you know he is destroying future possibilities for he has cannibalised the backs' space. Running sideways may be to bring pressure on himself but it also brings pressure onto those outside of him who now have to catch, deal with pressure and consider their further options.

There were two significant Tests – England vs Australia at Twickenham and Wales vs South Africa in Cardiff. We looked at passes and how many steps the scrumhalf made before passing. (We have not counted steps to avoid a hindrance.)

South Africa's pass-step rate was enormous. It was 43 passes which took 74 steps.

The other three teams' scrumhalves made 153 passes with 64 steps, despite the appearance of Nick White for Australia in the second half who is a stepper.

Despite White the scrumhalves for Wales, Australia and England made a smaller aggregate of steps in over three times as many passes.

It may just be that the South African backs problem is really a scrumhalf problem.

It's not that Cobus Reinach cannot pass straight off the ground. He did so in the match, but it is clearly not a priority, perhaps because it is not a priority for the coaches.

Look at November's scrumhalves and see where you would place Cobus Reinach and Francois Hougaard.

Argentina: Tomás Cubelli, Martín Landajo

Australia: Nick Phipps, Will Genia, Nic White

England: Ben Youngs, Danny Care, Richard Wigglesworth

France: Sébastien Tillous-Borde, Rory Kockott

Ireland: Conor Murray, Eoin Reddan

Italy: Eduardo Gori

New Zealand: Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Augustine Pulu

Samoa: Kahn Fortuali'i

Scotland: Greig Laidlaw, Chris Cusiter

Wales: Rhys Webb, Mike Phillips

Then think of South African scrumhalves after World War II and see where you would fit Reinach and Hougaard into that tradition.

Fonnie du Toit, Hansie Oelofse, Popeye Strydom, Tommy Gentles, Dick Lockyear, Piet Uys, Dawie de Villiers, Nelie Smith, Joggie Viljoen, Paul Bayvel, Divan Serfontein, Garth Wright, Joost van der Westhuizen, Bolla Conradie, Enrico Januarie, Fourie du Preez. (This is not a complete list.)

Done thoughtfully, not vindictively or parochially, it could be an interesting exercise.

* When Danie Craven was 20 and had not yet played provincial rugby, he was chosen to as a Springbok to tour under the captaincy of the great flyhalf, Bennie Osler. Before the first time they played together, Craven waited for Osler to talk to him, to give him instructions. Eventually he mustered courage enough to talk to the great man.

Craven said to his captain: "Excuse me, Mr Osler, what are your calls."

Osler, puzzled, said: "What calls?"

Craven: "To tell me when you are going left and right and so on."

Osler: "You just pass the ball in front of me and never above my waist."

In a match if the scrumhalf passed the ball to him above his waist, Osler would shout 'Bliksem!' That is why Craven called his much-loved dog Bliksem.

By Paul Dobson



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