When the fly-half position is first explained to you as a child, you are told a few fundamentals of how the position originated: they are usually the kicker both out of hand and at goal, they are the first receiver and they dictate the attack. While this is, in large parts, still true, the position has evolved to become much more complex.
When you’re asked to think of the greatest fly-halves of all-time, who are the first names that come to mind? Jonny Wilkinson? Check. A textbook kicker and passer with outstanding defensive qualities. Dan Carter? Check. An all-round talent with the temperament to back it up. Barry John? Check. Had a sidestep so good he was viewed as ‘the King’ in the Valleys.
The last season has been rammed with punters screaming for the likes of Marcus Smith to grace the international stage. ‘He is a greater talent than George Ford’, they purr – and they’re not wrong by any stretch. Smith was raised goose-stepping around a Sevens track and throwing out-the-back passes – he is a naturally gifted entertainer.
On the flipside, we have just witnessed Dan Biggar and Handré Pollard bearing the No10 jerseys for three Tests in the British & Irish Lions series in South Africa. Many have lauded Biggar and Pollard’s styles as ‘boring’, which is of no bother to their respective coaches; their job was to win, not entertain.
There are young, exciting fly-halves in world rugby at the moment: Noah Lolesio, Paolo Garbisi, Louis Carbonel, Adam Hastings, to name but a few. The big question is: is a so-called ‘attacking’ fly-half the way forward? What does the future of the No 10 position look like?
If you’re constantly giving the opposition wingers nightmares of balls bouncing over their heads, you’re naturally going to have a lot more success when making risky passes or audacious chip-kicks.
It would be narrow-minded to refer to a player as merely ‘a kicking 10’ or ‘an attacking 10’, but if your playmaker could have only one of those skills, you’d be foolish to take a fly-half who can sidestep rather than welly a ball. International defences are so good that a fly-half should virtually never break the line, unless markedly on the front foot. It is difficult to conclusively say that there will always be a place in the game for a stand-off who can relentlessly punish a backfield, but territorial rugby is certainly the current trend.
The model fly-half in 2021 is far from Barry John. You’re looking more at somebody like Finn Russell or Romain Ntamack. Russell is arguably the best game-manager in Europe, which is why he is so threatening with ball in hand. If you’re constantly giving the opposition wingers nightmares of balls bouncing over their heads, you’re naturally going to have a lot more success when making risky passes or audacious chip-kicks.
In general, structured play, the old cliché of ‘taking the ball to the line’ is no longer. For a fly-half like Russell or George Ford, the most efficient play is to get the ball immediately in and out of their hands. With Ford in particular, he knows he doesn’t have to run especially hard to engage defenders, meaning he can immediately spread the ball to where the defence is thinner.
Of course, what they do with ball in hand is such a small portion of a fly-half’s contribution in attack. A No10 is seldom the first receiver from a wide breakdown anymore. The primary crux of their job is organising the most efficient way to get the ball from the scrum-half’s hands into space. Whether that is calling the ball out of the back of a forward group, organising a screen and calling for the ball from No9, or telling the forwards to crash the ball up and set up a quick phase.
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples of these. First up, we’ll focus on Ford’s decision-making for England in the 2019 Six Nations game against Scotland.
Ford came on for Owen Farrell as a replacement in this game. He largely played as a first receiver but, on the following example, he sits in the boot.
From a wide breakdown, Ford asks Nathan Hughes to carry. He opts not to call for the ball out the back, backing Hughes to make a dominant carry. He does so and England win a breakdown penalty.
In the final play of the game, England are plugging away at Scotland’s tryline to score an equaliser. Tom Curry looks to pick-and-go, but instead hits Ellis Genge on a wide ball to attack a weaker tackler in Greig Laidlaw.
With Curry and Genge being such strong carriers, Scotland fly up to smash them behind the gain line. Ford sees this as an opportunity to spread the Scotland defence thin and calls for the ball in the boot, for the first time in the game.
Ford assesses his wide options and eventually catches Sam Johnson off-balance. Ford then straightens to score the crucial try himself. The 28-year-old is arguably the best fly-half in the world in terms of choosing when it is appropriate to play out the back.
Now, let’s have a look at a No10 dictating a quick phase. The following example shows Italy fly-half Garbisi controlling play against England in the 2021 Six Nations.
In the above screenshot, you can see Garbisi pointing for his scrum-half Stephen Varney to not pass to him, but instead pass to the left-hand side.
Varney follows Garbisi’s instructions and the fly-half jogs into position on the left-hand side. He has noticed that this overlap is best executed over two phases. With a much shorter corridor for England to defend, Garbisi sends in hooker Luca Bigi as a hit runner to obstruct Owen Farrell and stunt England’s fold.
Michele Lamaro carries and pops the ball off the floor to Varney, meaning Italy have played a quick phase. At this point, Garbisi identifies a two-v-one outside him and immediately passes to Jacopo Trulla, who gives the try-scoring pass to Monty Ioane.
As the game continues to evolve and the fly-half position doubles up as a second-receiver position, will we continue to see more players like Biggar coming through academies? Perhaps – it’s much easier to rely on somebody who can boot a ball miles. But frankly, with the trend of box-kicking being the best way to clear your lines, you’d imagine most young players with titanic boots will be brought through as scrum-halves.
Booming kicks downfield and sharp sidesteps to alleviate pressure are skills that are welcomed, but they are not the main reason why the likes of Russell, Ford and Richie Mo’unga are the best fly-halves in the world.
On the flipside, will we be seeing more players like Garbisi or Smith? Well, yes. By no means does this make their style more favourable than Biggar, but it would be daft to ignore such a talent. The future of this position lies within the nurture of such talent into a ‘system 10’ – someone who can consistently, maturely organise their forwards and make good decisions of not only when, but how, to call for the ball.
So, to answer the earlier question: is an ‘attacking’ fly-half the way forward? Truthfully, there shouldn’t really be such thing. On line breaks, yes, but the job of the No10 in 2021 is to bring the best out of those around them, rather than to do anything flashy themselves. Organisation is the king of all skills. Booming kicks downfield and sharp sidesteps to alleviate pressure are skills that are welcomed, but they are not the main reason why the likes of Russell, Ford and Richie Mo’unga are the best fly-halves in the world. Sure, it helps to open up space, but an all-round game is set to be a necessity in international rugby, not a bonus.
More stories from Will Owen
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