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Q & A: Ruan Pienaar reveals his scrumhalf life hacks and cheat codes

By Gavin Hickie
Ruan Pienaar

Springbok and now departing Ulster scrumhalf revealed his top tips for aspiring scrumhalves to former Leinster, Leicester and Ireland A hooker and author of Rugby Revealed, Gavin Hickie.

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Ulster no 9 Ruan Pienaar may have played his last game for the Irish province but he is expected to run out one final time at the Kingspan Stadium after he was named in the latest Barbarians squad to face Ulster on June 1st.

One of the mainstays of the Irish club in his seven seasons with Ulster, he also made his mark with the Springboks and has pulled on the iconic black and white striped Baa Baas jersey in the past. This accomplished no 9 has a lot of experience in his rugby position and the Rugby Revealed team asked him to share his advice on playing scrum half.

Why did you choose to become a scrum half & what do you enjoy about the position?
I played fly-half up until the age of 14. Once I went to high school I was one of the smaller guys so I tried scrum half. In my last year of High School I got taller but stuck with scrum half because I really enjoyed the position. I play a few games at 10 and 15 as well.

At 9 you are a crucial decision maker and are involved in most of the attacking play. I think the 9 & 10 are the two most important positions on the pitch in terms of making decisions, getting the team going forward and playing in the right areas of the pitch. I enjoy being in the middle of all the plays as well as being an organiser.

What are the most important skills needed to play scrum half?
Your basics of passing, your kicking game, decision making under pressure are all very important. You only have a split second to make good decisions and to provide your team with positive outcomes so focus on your core skills and the rest will follow. All the different aspects such as line breaks will come but passing, kicking and high levels of fitness are your main areas of focus.

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How do you decide whether to run, kick or pass?
There is more structure to the game these days as opposed to the 80’s and 90’s so a lot of teams now have set calls for up to the first three phases and then you go into your general attack and that is where your instinct kicks in.

It is very important to scan and see what is happening even before you get to the ruck so you can make the decision even before you get the ball into your hands. You check and see if there is space at the back, whether the forwards are on or whether there is space behind them out in the backs or if the blindside is open or if you can snipe yourself. These are all things you need to look at before you get to the ruck. It is important to have that vision and clarity of what you are doing.

Some games you will do well in those areas and some games you will struggle. You may even struggle in that area for a couple of seasons but once you get going that is the key to making good decisions.

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What do you want from your forwards from set-piece?
Good clean ball! As much as the backs make fun of the forwards, they have to do the hard work up front or else the backs won’t have the space to attack. So, I think it is key to have a good set-piece. Good clean ball from the lineout and clean ball at the base of the scrum which puts the opposition under pressure and give the backs space to attack. As hard as it is for a back to say, we really need the forwards to fire and give you good front foot ball.

How do you organise the defence?
It depends on the defence philosophy, whether it is a drift defence, a rush defence or an outside in defence. 9s job is to cover the chips over the defence and help the wings and full back out and cover the spaces. For the 9 the key thing is communication and making good decisions. The game of rugby is all about making good decisions and that is the same on attack or defence.

What are the mechanics of the box kick and when would you use it?
We see this more and more in the modern game. It is a 50/50 ball for your wingers to chase and hopefully win it back for your team. Taking your time to get set and getting a good base are key. I normally put my right foot out and work backwards with my left foot and then get into a good position to execute the box kick. The drop of the ball is very important as well as the follow through, making sure you are not stabbing at the ball but kicking through the target. If you are kicking from the ground, you will have less time so it is key to get your blockers in place. It is just practice, practice, practice to get a good accurate kick.

How do you develop your decision making?
It is a cliché but how you train is how you play, both as an individual and a team. I truly believe the way you train is what you will take to the pitch so training under pressure and putting yourself in game situations will lead to good decision making and accurate execution.

How do you develop your relationship with your 10?
That is key. I played with Ian Humphreys at Ulster during my first two years here and we clicked from the start. Sometimes you get into a groove with some players and without him even saying something, I know what he wants. Once you get that relationship with your 10, it is just brilliant.

Repetition in training and putting in the hard yards with your 10 is key. Sometimes it can take a while but sometimes you just click with someone. 9 & 10 are two key players who drive the attack and make the decisions on behalf of the team so for me, that is the most important combination within the team.

Where do you go mentally as a goal kicker?
Putting the hours in and spending the time in preparation ahead of a game puts me in a good space of mind. Getting confidence from practice, knowing that it is going well and staying in that process. Simply work hard and you will get the results.

What is the best piece of advice you have received?
My father played rugby and coached me and always told me “there is no substitute for hard work”. I have seen a lot of guys who might have been more talented than me or could have been brilliant rugby players but they did not have the work ethic. You have to spend hours working on the pitch to improve all those skills and to improve as player.

Even now, at the age of 33, I really like to train hard and make sure I prepare myself as well as I possibly can which gives me confidence going into the weekend’s game. Hard work is something small and simple but for me, it is the most important thing.

What is the difference between a good 9 and a great 9?
Having a high skill level along with the ability to make decisions under pressure will have a positive effect on the team. The 9 is the link between the forwards and backs so you need to be able take control and make the split-second decisions.

Gavin Hickie, USA Rugby Mens Collegiate All-Americans Head Coach, is a former Ireland A & 7s, Leinster and Leicester rugby player now Head Coach of Dartmouth Rugby. He writes for RugbyToday.com and other publications when not coaching and blogging on lineoutcoach.com. Gavin works with writing partner Eilidh Donaldson. who he describes as the ‘brains’ behind Lineoutcoach.com

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M
Morne 16 minutes ago
Thanks but no thanks, the All Blacks do not need to copy the Boks

Some further observations: Most Rugby lovers I know agree that the AB’s have been the gold standard for as long as anyone can remember - very few people disagree. The odd time that any other team has some sort of ascendency - there are always those (albeit the minority) NZ supporters that need to remind us of the AB’s glorious gold standard that anyone winning them is only down to a mixture of pure luck or some or other sinister reason or bias from match officials (or indeed the Universe). For reasons mentioned above, any other team with some ascendency over the AB’s (even if it is the 1st time in 100 years) may not receive a pat on the back and a well-done - as they only did so out of pure luck. In my opinion, if the Boks were in the same realm as the AB’s SF opponents - they would have been smashed also - whether with 14 or 13 or 12 players. But remember they were just “lucky”. As a Bok supporter, I will say this team has done our proud - despite losing some games along the way. Like the AB’s, the games the boks lose are 9/10 times one score games - this is a long way from hidings like 57 - 0…And in that we must be proud. Most of these type of articles - especially those focusing on the RWC final rather conveniently leave out any mention of Pieter Steph du Toit, or even Eben Etzebeth who won all their collusions all day long. So to those very very few bad loser AB supporters out there (definitely the minority) - I’ll say what you want to hear - the AB’s are without any doubt the best Rugby brand ever. They have consistently achieved what all other teams can only dream of. And no doubt they will scale those heights again. Now what about allowing others the odd ray of sunlight that comes our way?

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