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FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'You don’t win a World Cup without a top-class scrum-half'

Mick Cleary: 'You don’t win a World Cup without a top-class scrum-half'
1 year ago

You don’t win a World Cup without a top-class scrum-half. Even a partial roll-call of Webb Ellis honours tells you that in no uncertain fashion: Nick Farr-Jones, Joost van der Westhuizen, George Gregan, Fourie du Preez and Aaron Smith would be contenders for any all-time greatest XV.  David Kirk, Matt Dawson, Piri Weepu and Faf de Klerk also merit honourable mentions. Long before social media was invented the scrum-half was the key influencer of the day.

That’s the benchmark. That’s the challenge for Steve Borthwick’s England, to settle on a scrum-half with speed of thought, quickness of pass, accuracy of kick, power on the break, astuteness of decision-making, all the attributes that are the minimum requirement of a No 9, or certainly one that can come close to matching the figure that is certain to be the market-leader at the tournament, France’s Antoine Dupont.

It’s a tough ask for the simple reason that England have not made up their minds as to just who they want to be their conductor in the No 9 shirt. The latest training squad released only highlights the dilemma. Ben Youngs is back in the colours to join Leicester teammate, Jack van Poortvliet alongside Danny Care and Alex Mitchell. Two scrum-halves that had shown their stuff in the opening week’s camp at Pennyhill Park, Bath’s Ben Spencer and Harry Randall of Bristol, were deemed surplus to requirement for the Brighton camp. Factor in too, that Sale’s Raffi Quirke is also in consideration as he completes the mandatory five week rest period although it’s fair to say that Quirke has not been at full throttle during an injury-afflicted season.

Matt Dawson
Matt Dawson was integral to England winning the World Cup and they need a 9 who can steer them to the business end of the tournament (CHRISTOPHE SIMON/Getty Images)

Dupont is an amalgamation of all those greats mentioned in the opening paragraph; robust, clever, hard-working and eagle-eyed. RWC 2023 could be his crowning glory, the stage on which he might edge du Preez and van der Westhuizen as the greatest of the World Cup era.

By comparison at this stage England will have to make-do-and-mend. There seems to be no way that they can pull a rabbit from the hat unless they can re-wind the clock over a decade and rediscover the Ben Youngs that was such a dynamic presence in the early years of his career, thrillingly so on his first start for England against Australia in Sydney when the then 20-year-old didn’t stop to dwell on this-or-that possibility but simply pinned his ears back and scooted off towards the try-line to set England on their way to a 21-20 win, only their third ever win over the Wallabies on home soil.

Youngs had the pace and he had the nerve. Yet how often have England supports yelled their annoyance  as Youngs weighs up his options at the base of a scrum or breakdown?

Maybe it’s wrong to focus too much on that callow player and wonder what on earth happened to that sparky decisiveness. And yet, there is little doubt that the Youngs of that era has only been sporadically seen during the course of his lengthy and admirable career. Youngs had the pace and he had the nerve. Yet how often have England supports yelled their annoyance as Youngs weighs up his options at the base of a scrum or breakdown?

There can be no more frustrating player, brimful of skill and courage yet, to my mind, never having got the absolute utmost out of that talent. This is criticism of the highest order, as it ought to be when comparing against those who have gone before him for other countries in particular. Youngs ought to have been challenging for entry into that pantheon.

Ben Youngs
Can Ben Youngs, who will turn 34 before the tournament starts, roll back the years for England? (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

What he offers Steve Borthwick is a known, safe pair of hands, able to tie a game down or lend a bit of control to proceedings.

That his Tigers’ teammate, Jack van Poortvliet, has not been able to make the shirt his own is something of a disappointment. The 22-year-old looked to the manor born when he first broke through into the test ranks during last year’s summer tour to Australia. Anther son of Norfolk, as per his Leicester pal, van Poortvliet showed those self-same attributes of gas on the break and crispness of service. He appeared ready to step up and assume command only for a bit of hesitancy to creep into his game during this year’s Six Nations championship. England, of course, have been out-of-sorts across the board for far too long, a downturn that saw Eddie Jones sacked and Borthwick take over. It has been an unsettling time.  Van Poortvliet has to play to a quicker yet more measured tempo if he is to persuade Borthwick that he is the man to do the World Cup business at No 9

Mitchell might  be the man to mirror that sort of service. The shirt is there to be grabbed and the Saints’ player has the range of skills to step up to the mark.

Into the debate comes the question as to who might get the best out of the man who must start at fly-half, Owen Farrell. It is high time that England stopped faffing about with Farrell and made it a non-negotiable that he starts in the No 10 shirt no matter how well George Ford or Marcus Smith might be playing. Farrell, of course, has to maintain the standards he has hit consistently for Saracens in the closing months of the season. The England captain has been playing up on the line for his club, drawing in defenders, seeing possibilities as would-be tacklers commit themselves. His Saracens’ scrum-half, another from a long line of well-packaged South African scrum-halves, Ivan van Zyl, has given him the sort of ball that brings the best out of Farrell; sharp, speedy, though-provoking.

Mitchell might  be the man to mirror that sort of service. The shirt is there to be grabbed and the Saints’ player has the range of skills to step up to the mark. Of course there are question marks. If there weren’t we wouldn’t be pondering the permutations in the first place. All the leading contenders have a man to the fore – Dupont for France, Jamison Gibson-Park across the Irish Sea with Conor Murray riding shotgun for Ireland while Aaron Smith and Faf de Klerk are ever-eager.

Antoine Dupont
Whomever England pick, they must reach the same heights as Antoine Dupont and Jamison Gibson-Park (Photo by FRANCK FIFE/Getty Images)

England have to find their man – be it van Poortvliet or Mitchell, now that Randall and Spencer appear to have been passed over, and back him all the way through.

There is one name that we haven’t mentioned yet, the evergreen, ever-willing Danny Care. Surely not? Well, it would be an outside punt that’s for sure but Care has been defying odds as well as critics for many years. One thing for certain is that he and Youngs will make sure that the battle for the starting shirt through the hot summer months will be fierce and unremitting.

So much now depends on Borthwick getting the right man in shape and propelling him towards France unencumbered with doubt, or indecision. There is no time to lose.


Poorfour 366 days ago

Care is definitely an outside bet, but he offers some intriguing possibilities.

Paired with Farrell, he brings a level of creativity and uncertainty at halfback that unsettles defences that allows Farrell to concentrate on exploiting the space rather than creating it (which has always been the weakest aspect of his game at international level). Paired with Smith, he brings a level of understanding and a balance of roles that might finally help England to get the most out of their most creative option at 10. For Quins, Care takes on the game management aspect of the role, allowing Smith to focus on the space and opportunities.

I don’t think he works as well with Ford, mainly because what Ford needs is fast, high quality service rather than a scrum half who will play too active a role in the game.

For the last decade or more Youngs has been the non-negotiable 9 in any England squad, but Borthwick has shown that he’s willing to look at other options. At the same time, none of the younger candidates have made the shirt their own and England are likely to want a more experienced scrum half in the squad.

Care has never had a decent run at the Rugby World Cup - a freak injury in camp in 2011, underused by Lancaster in 2015, falling out with Eddie in 2019. If he does make the final squad, then he knows it’s his last chance to shine on the biggest stage and like his predecessor in the quarters Andy Gomarsall, you suspect he will commit fully to making the most of the opportunity.

Steve 366 days ago

Unfortunately I think a lot of this fall on Eddie Jones. I'm a big Eddie fan and think England were wrong to let him go but he definitely didn't help bring through any young scrum halves. He focused on Ben Youngs and then ignored or chopped and changed his back ups which has left us in this position

Machpants 366 days ago

It is also a criticism of Aaron Smith of late, he rarely runs. So that means he is only a two dimensional threat. His pass is so good, but when he runs (and it only needs to be a few times) he is damn good, too

luke 366 days ago

It’s concerning that it’s not clear from the outside. How can a team develop without consistency. I hold little hope for England unfortunately! We need another 4 years to settle.

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