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Building the perfect rugby player: Scrum-half

By Alex Shaw
(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

After examining the No8 position and wrapping up the pack, our series looking at building the perfect rugby player now moves on to scrum-half and the qualities that best extol the modern nine. Arguably no position dictates how a game is managed as much as the scrum-half and that requires the players there to not only have a rounded technical skill set but also to be exemplary in the decisions that they make.

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We have identified the five key attributes for the half-back position below and picked out five examples from the rugby world that best illustrate these skills in action.

Any scrum-half’s bread and butter is their passing game. The accuracy of their passing from hand, from the floor and the distance they can maintain that accuracy at, particularly when playing at tempo and potentially fatigued. The velocity they can get on a pass, too, is key, as well as an appreciation for when and when not to take some of that zip off the ball in order to help the recipient cleanly take the pass.

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Drew Mitchell joins Jim Hamilton in the latest edition of The Lockdown, the RugbyPass pandemic interview series

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Drew Mitchell joins Jim Hamilton in the latest edition of The Lockdown, the RugbyPass pandemic interview series

There aren’t many with a better breadth of passing than Ireland’s Conor Murray, with his tempo and accuracy from the ruck one of the driving factors behind the success Munster and Ireland have had with one-out runners. His ability to beat the fringe defence of teams with a flat zipped pass from the floor is exemplary.

Seemingly almost as important as passing for a modern nine, box-kicking is now critical to a team’s chances of success. Whether it’s to control territory, relieve pressure or give chasing players an opportunity to win back possession, a good box-kicking scrum-half can prove to be the difference in a tightly contested game.

Plenty of teams lean heavily on this tactic, maybe none as much as England with incumbent scrum-half Ben Youngs having excelled in this area for a number of years now. He generally has very good chemistry with his side’s chasers, to the point where it is now surprising if England don’t win back possession on multiple kicks per game through this tactic.

In order to make it from ruck to ruck, the acceleration and speed of a nine can be the difference between a win and a defeat for their side. It’s also important in terms of allowing a team to play with a higher tempo, as well as the nine’s ability to spot gaps in the defensive line and make headway as a ball-carrier, exploiting over-eager defences ready to blitz the attacking backline.

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Although this side of his game was reined in at the World Cup in order to fit with Rassie Erasmus’ game plan, there are none better than South Africa’s Faf de Klerk in this area. He is the epitome of a ‘livewire’ scrum-half. In addition to his frightening turn of pace helping in all the areas highlighted previously, it also makes him a threat on defence with the Springbok having grabbed plenty of interceptions with his pace and evolved reading of the game.

Given the number of times a scrum-half has their hands on the ball and their repeated ability to influence a game, there is a necessity that they make the right decisions at the right time. This can range from whether or not to run or to pass, or to be able to spot space on the pitch and make the decision to put in a well-weighted kick to that area. They cannot afford to miss the opportunities that are presented to them.

Despite still being just 23 years of age, the decision-making of France’s Antoine Dupont is already exceptional. He ticks all the boxes you need from a nine with his passing, kicking and speed, but it’s the unerring correct judgement calls that he makes which in turn allow all of those technical and physical skills to look so impressive.

Finally, we come to support play. There are few sights as rewarding in rugby as a physical back row or centre making a gallop through the defensive line before finding a pinpoint offload or pass for a supporting scrum-half to then speed away under the sticks. Given their roles tracking the ball, any nine who can read and support linebreaks can wreak havoc on an opposition defence, especially if they boast the pace we highlighted before.

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Perhaps the most potent example of this skill right now is New Zealand’s TJ Perenara, with the half-back having lit up Super Rugby and international rugby with these sorts of scores. It also leans heavily on the speed and decision-making attributes we talked about earlier, other skills that Perenara has in abundance and frequently shows how influential they can be when combined with the eagerness and work rate to support play.

Passing – Conor Murray

Box-kicking – Ben Youngs

Acceleration and speed – Faf de Klerk

Decision-making – Antoine Dupont

Support play – TJ Perenara

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Jon 8 hours ago
Why Sam Cane's path to retirement is perfect for him and the All Blacks

> It would be best described as an elegant solution to what was potentially going to be a significant problem for new All Blacks coach Scott Robertson. It is a problem the mad population of New Zealand will have to cope with more and more as All Blacks are able to continue their careers in NZ post RWCs. It will not be a problem for coaches, who are always going to start a campaign with the captain for the next WC in mind. > Cane, despite his warrior spirit, his undoubted commitment to every team he played for and unforgettable heroics against Ireland in last year’s World Cup quarter-final, was never unanimously admired or respected within New Zealand while he was in the role. Neither was McCaw, he was considered far too passive a captain and then out of form until his last world cup where everyone opinions changed, just like they would have if Cane had won the WC. > It was never easy to see where Cane, or even if, he would fit into Robertson’s squad given the new coach will want to be building a new-look team with 2027 in mind. > Cane will win his selections on merit and come the end of the year, he’ll sign off, he hopes, with 100 caps and maybe even, at last, universal public appreciation for what was a special career. No, he won’t. Those returning from Japan have already earned the right to retain their jersey, it’s in their contract. Cane would have been playing against England if he was ready, and found it very hard to keep his place. Perform, and they keep it however. Very easy to see where Cane could have fit, very hard to see how he could have accomplished it choosing this year as his sabbatical instead of 2025, and that’s how it played out (though I assume we now know what when NZR said they were allowing him to move his sabbatical forward and return to NZ next year, they had actually agreed to simply select him for the All Blacks from overseas, without any chance he was going to play in NZ again). With a mammoth season of 15 All Black games they might as well get some value out of his years contract, though even with him being of equal character to Richie, I don’t think they should guarantee him his 100 caps. That’s not what the All Blacks should be about. He absolutely has to play winning football.

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