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FEATURE Ben Youngs: 'The job description of a 9 has changed. Gibson-Park and Dupont are leading the evolution'

Ben Youngs: 'The job description of a 9 has changed. Gibson-Park and Dupont are leading the evolution'
3 weeks ago

The Gallagher Premiership’s annual salary cap survey recently revealed that the scrum-half is the most poorly paid player in the league. Not for the first time in English club rugby, someone seems to have got their sums wrong.

Never has the No 9 been as valuable to a team. Look at the Champions Cup. The two finalists, Toulouse and Leinster, have different ways of playing but there is a common factor to both. They are run by their scrum-half.

Antoine Dupont and Jamison Gibson-Park are the nerve centres of both operations.

Impish impresarios pushing the boundaries of what a scrum-half can do – what a scrum-half is even – Dupont and Gibson-Park are influencing games in a manner more often associated with a stand-off.

As far as the two preeminent sides in Europe are concerned No 9 has become the new No 10.

Ben Youngs was England’s scrum-half for 13 years before retiring from international rugby after the World Cup.

Antoine Dupont
Ben Youngs knows from first-hand experience just how special a player Antoine Dupont is (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

His view is that few positions have evolved more during the professional era.

“The job description of a 9 has changed and Gibson-Park and Dupont are leading the latest evolution,” said Youngs.

“The stock of a 9 has gone up, firstly because of the fact that exits have become so important in a game of rugby. It wasn’t too long ago that the ball would be passed back to the No 10. If you think of the Jonny Wilkinson-Matt Dawson era everything would have been passed back to Jonny who would boot it a mile.

“Even when I started there wasn’t a big emphasis on a 9 being able to box-kick. It was something you practised a little bit but it wasn’t such an important aspect. What was valued higher then was your ability to make breaks, your ability to speed up the game and your service.

Gibson-Park and Dupont have nailed all that and then there’s the other work they do. You look at Gibson-Park in the back field against Northampton and his ability to take the high ball and then return the kick …Dupont is in the defensive line a lot, making tackles and hitting forwards.

Ben Youngs

“The role has evolved hugely so that not only does the 9 have to be a running threat but they also have to be an expert box kicker and an absolute master of controlling the tempo and fluidity of the game.

“Gibson-Park and Dupont have nailed all that and then there’s the other work they do. You look at Gibson-Park in the back field against Northampton and his ability to take the high ball and then return the kick …Dupont is in the defensive line a lot, making tackles and hitting forwards.

“It wasn’t expected of you as a 9 to do that stuff.

“There’s always someone that comes along and raises the ceiling for a position. Those two are doing that and going to keep pushing it. What are they going to add next?

“This showdown between them in the European final is going to be fantastic.”

Ben Youngs
Ben Youngs has seen Jamison Gibson-Park evolve into one of, if not the best scrum-half in the world (Photo Harry Murphy/Getty Images)

No arguments there. Gibson-Park is playing the best rugby of his life and Dupont is, well, Dupont.

The France captain is widely regarded as the finest rugbyman on the planet. So when Gibson-Park’s teammate James Lowe ranked the Leinsterman as “probably” the best No 9 in the world after the semi-final win over Northampton it was regarded as an act of heresy in some quarters.

Take the Champions Cup knockout stages in isolation though and you can make a case for Gibson-Park.

Two man of the match awards, four tries and two assists against the Saints which were sent from Heaven mark him out as a player riding a magic carpet.

On the bench in 2018 the last time Leinster won the Champions Cup, he is on a mission this season with his province.

Take the season as a whole however and Dupont’s numbers are staggering. He tops the competition charts for offloads (20) and carries (110) and is on the podium for tries (5), clean breaks (13), metres made (534) and even turnovers (9).

This, remember, is in a season where he led his side at a home World Cup with all the emotional energy that required and took a sabbatical to learn sevens in preparation for the Paris Olympics.

If you are looking to settle the argument one way or another try transplanting each into the other one’s team.

Add Gibson-Park to Toulouse and they would still tick along nicely. He would bring their power carriers into the game, scent the space for them to attack and run those brilliant support lines. Decent signing.

Add Dupont to Leinster and they would be pretty much unbeatable. The physical upgrade, the close-quarter offloads, the left foot/right foot clearances would make a fantastic side even more fantastic.

Add Dupont to any side and the same thing happens.

It does not mean Gibson-Park cannot outplay him in a one-off game like the final at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on May 25 but take the long view and Dupont, for the breadth of his attributes and his x-factor, remains the best of the best.

Jacques Fouroux
The idea of a ‘petit general’ is not new with the great Jacques Fouroux perfecting the role in the Seventies (Photo Getty Images)

The star scrum-half is of course not a new thing in France. The No 9 in French rugby has long been a position of reverence.

Jacques Fouroux may have been just 5ft 3in tall but he was undisputedly the boss of the French national side in the 70s, barking at his giant pack like some demented Jack Russell.

Socks down and chest out, Le Petit Caporal (The Little Corporal) – as he was nicknamed with a doff of the bicorne to Napoleon – captained France to three Six Nations’ titles with a look-at-me magnetism.

Pierre Berbizier, Dimitri Yachvili, Morgan Parra. They were all principal playmakers for Les Bleus who wore the No 9 jersey rather than the No 10.

Pierre Berbizier, Dimitri Yachvili, Morgan Parra. They were all principal playmakers for Les Bleus who wore the No 9 jersey rather than the No 10.

Now Johnny Sexton has retired, Gibson-Park is attracting a similar spotlight in Ireland.

In England it is still the stand-off who continues to attract the lion’s share of the limelight – and the rewards.

The same salary cap survey that placed the No 9 at the bottom of the Premiership earnings table had the No 10 at the top.

Maybe, in the light of what is happening at the very top of the European game, it is time to start showing the little guys some more love.

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