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New generation of 9s looms

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No country for young scrum-halves - apart from France

As one of the positions on the pitch that is constantly influencing play and particularly responsible for how a team manages the game, it’s no surprise that international rugby is littered with experienced scrum-halves.

From Conor Murray, Ben Youngs and Greig Laidlaw in the northern hemisphere to Aaron Smith, Will Genia and Tomás Cubelli in the southern, many of rugby’s international half-backs are approaching a certain vintage.

Between those six, they average just over 30 years of age – with all six set to be in their 30’s by the time the Rugby World Cup rolls around – and 81 test caps. It is a wealth of experience for Ireland, England, Scotland, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina, whilst casting the net a little wider also brings the 34-year-old Fumiaki Tanaka of Japan into the equation, with 69 caps, as well as the 29-year-old Italian Edoardo Gori, who also has 69 caps.

You can argue it’s good planning from all of those nations, to have players at their peak, playing at a high level with plenty of experience, heading into a RWC, and whilst none of those players are likely to be cast aside after the tournament, save for Laidlaw and Tanaka potentially because of age, the international game is likely to embrace a new generation of scrum-halves in 2020.

The careers of Murray, Youngs, Smith and Genia have felt inextricably linked for the last 10 years as they have battled against one another and, for the most part, have been consistently locking down their sides’ nine jersey over that period. They will all arguably have roles transitioning to the next generation of player during the next cycle, but with Murray and Youngs set to be 34 at the next RWC and Smith and Genia turning 35 before or during the 2023 tournament, 2019 could well be the last time we see them at that level.

What also links a number of these nations has been their unwillingness or reluctance to bring in and gradually blood younger alternative options, instead preferring to stick with the veteran options at the position who know how to run their specific game plan.

In Gareth Davies and Faf de Klerk, Wales and South Africa have players who could certainly still be around in 2023, but for the most part among Tier 1 nations, the scrum-half position is no country for young men.

Apart from France, of course.

For all the frustrations that abound watching the French national team, their ability to produce talented young scrum-halves is unmatched in world rugby. From the electric Antoine Dupont to the lively Baptise Serin to the promising Baptiste Couilloud, French rugby is swimming in scrum-halves capable of taking them forward. Bordeaux’s Jules Gimbert, Lyon’s Quentin Delord, La Rochelle’s Arthur Retiere and Stade FrançaisArthur Coville are also being rolled off the production line and would be highly-prized by almost any nation other than France, who enjoy such riches at the position.

The transition plans are not quite as numerous among other nations, however, with England and Ireland in particular having rigidly stuck to their guns with Youngs and Murray respectively.

England will be keen to keep Youngs in the mix next season, as the likes of Dan Robson and Ben Spencer have had very little rugby at international level, whilst Richard Wigglesworth and Danny Care might be facing their last shots at test rugby later this year in Japan, with the pair 36 and 32 next season respectively.

Jack Maunder was identified early as a future contributor and capped on England’s tour of Argentina in 2017, but has yet to become the first-choice scrum-half at Exeter Chiefs due to the presence of Nic White, something which can also be extended to his teammates Stu Townsend and Sam Maunder.

Ireland have had tasters from Kieran Marmion and John Cooney, although with both just a couple of years Murray’s junior, they could well be looking younger for the next nine to build around. Leinster’s Luke McGrath could be that man, otherwise bringing through highly-promising Munster half-back Craig Casey could be an option, especially if Andy Farrell is happy being patient and continuing with Murray initially, as you would expect is likely to happen.

Scotland have been slightly more proactive, integrating Ali Price quite heavily over the last few years, as well as having a look at George Horne over the last 12 months. It would be no surprise to see Price take the jersey on after the RWC before a potential challenge comes from current Scotland U18 Jamie Dobie in the coming years.

Like Scotland, both Argentina and New Zealand have been productive preparing alternatives. Gonzalo Bertranou has started regularly for Argentina over the last year and, at 25 years of age, is the natural successor to both Cubelli and Martín Landajo. As for the All Blacks, TJ Perenara has been waiting in the wings behind Smith, although Smith’s decision to sign a two-year extension with the Highlanders and New Zealand could see Perenara miss out on his opportunity to take over the role full-time.

Bryn Hall and Brad Weber are similar ages to Perenara, so there could well be further chances for Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Sam Nock or Folau Fakatava after the RWC, as they look to manage the transition, something which they do better than any other nation in world rugby. It’s not quite the abundance of options that France have, but it’s still a very healthy crop of players to pick from.

Australia will miss Genia when he or they opt to move on from the 100-cap man, especially with White at Exeter and Nick Phipps making the move to London Irish, with the pair the two players that have tended to pick up international experience alongside Genia. Joe Powell and Jake Gordon have flirted with the squad but find themselves with minimal test experience and in their mid-20’s, potentially opening the door for Ryan Lonergan or one of the Reds duo of Tate McDermott or James Tuttle, should one of those three be able to distinguish themselves from the chasing pack.

As for Japan and Italy, the Cherry Blossoms have been alternating with Yutaka Nagare over the last couple of years and Italy have recently brought former England U20 Callum Braley into camp, potentially targeting him as a player to lure to Italy and build around in the coming seasons.

It’s been an entertaining group of scrum-halves over the last 10 years, with Youngs and Genia enjoying some memorable battles as they both raced onto the scene, before Smith and Murray took the ascendancy in the years that followed. Cubelli, Laidlaw and Tanaka have all made their marks in their own ways, too, and have been pivotal to the successes that their nations have enjoyed over that period.

To see so many new players step into such a key position over the next couple of years will be fun for neutrals to watch, but hopefully this group of savvy, veteran nines can sign off in spectacular fashion at the RWC later this year before that happens.

Watch: Aaron Smith signs new deal with the Higlanders and New Zealand Rugby

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No country for young scrum-halves - apart from France