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FEATURE Why Jake Gordon could answer Australia's scrum-half quandary

Why Jake Gordon could answer Australia's scrum-half quandary
3 months ago

Joe Schmidt is bedding in to his new surroundings. Slowly, and one baby step at a time. He is tentative, not quite sure whether the evidence of the Wallabies’ early-exit World Cup is to be believed, or the form lines within Super Rugby Pacific may prove a more reliable guide.

As he explained on Stan Sports after the Waratahs’ encouraging victory over the Crusaders: “[The canvas] is nice and blank and it’s a little bit dauntingly blank, because you like to have a little bit of continuity. I am sure there will be some continuity, but at the same time, we have got to take a big step from where things finished up at the World Cup. Some of what I have seen this weekend is part of that.”

While Schmidt mentioned both New South Wales number 10 Tane Edmed and lock/blind-side flank Hugh Sinclair in dispatches, a lot of attention will inevitably be directed at the pivot of the team in five months’ time.

France’s traumatic Six Nations experience with global superstar Antoine Dupont missing from their ranks is the most recent example of how dauntingly blank the canvas can become in the absence of a top-drawer half-back, and on both sides of the ball.

It is likewise, no coincidence SRP has taken heed of the lessons of the early rounds of the premier competition in the north and abandoned the so-called ‘Dupont’s Law’. The rule was named after the Toulousain maestro and it is a reminder of how active the scrum-half has now become in defence.

Dupont is regularly employed by his club to defend well ahead of a kicker from the rouges et noirs backfield, in a mirror image of the ‘cheat’ lines a good nine will run in attack, anticipating a break or bust made much further upfield.

 

The most active defender in this instance from the Scotland-France game at Murrayfield is the French replacement scrum-half Nolann Le Garrec – waiting for Finn Russell to make a move so he can rush the kicker.

It is symbolic of just how important the position has become in the modern era. Just as quick-ruck attack systems depend on a high-energy nine able to reach the base quickly and make lightning-fast reads when they get there, so defence patterns will often use the scrum-half as a ‘joker in the pack’; a floating spare man who can make a world of difference when inserted in the right place at the right time.

While the Wallaby selection situation for Schmidt at scrum-half is not exactly ‘dauntingly blank’, it does lack continuity. If Dave Rennie had been allowed to continue his remedial work to the very end of his contract, there is not much doubt Nic White would have been nailed-on as his top choice. But when Eddie Jones took over at the beginning of 2023, that script – along with many others – was abruptly torn up.

White drifted from the centre to the periphery, and his deputy at the Brumbies, Ryan Lonergan, who had been included in every Jones squad up until the World Cup, was then mysteriously omitted from the blue riband event itself. New South Welshman Jake Gordon, who has spent most of his professional career in an arm-wrestle with the Reds’ Tate McDermott as the heir to the throne behind White, also dropped from sight as the Queenslander was installed as both the main man at nine and skipper. Uncapped Issak Fines-Leleiwasa then bolted from nowhere to grab the third squad spot.

While the same faces will be auditioning for the starring role, the pecking order remains shrouded in mystery. White will be 37 by the time the 2027 World Cup spins around, Gordon 34 and Fines-Leleiwasa 31. Only Lonergan and McDermott will still be in their twenties. The only certainty is Schmidt will demand hyper-activity, and Aaron Smith-like energy levels from the two scrum-halves chosen in his matchday 23.

The Waratahs’ Gordon did his chances no harm at all in front of an onlooking Schmidt in the win over the Crusaders. He showed in defence at least, he will have the high energy levels, and a knack for making the big play Schmidt will appreciate when he sits down to select his first Wallaby squad before the arrival of Wales for a two-Test series in July.

Perhaps the first scrum-half to lift the veil from Wallaby eyes was Gareth Davies at the pool stage at the 2019 World Cup. The Scarlet scored a critical breakaway try during Wales’ pool-stage win.

 


That was the second intercept Davies had made as a ‘shooter’ out of the defensive line in the game – and on this occasion, it had a decisive outcome. Within a couple of years, ‘Flash’ Gordon had acquired a very similar taste for breakaway blood with New South Wales.

 

The modern scrum-half can shoot off the line and attack, he can man the deep backfield or he can defend as a sweeper in the space in-between. Against the Crusaders, Gordon tended to align as a sweeper in centre-field, in behind the ruck.

 

Where most international nines are now located in the tramlines and stay on the edge, eventually retiring to the backfield, Gordon is positioned at the tail of the line, ready to rush out into the 10 channel on first phase, then settle into his centre-field role as a sweeper in the boot-space behind the ruck.

He assists in the initial stop on Levi Aumua, reads the direction of attack on second phase and is ready to pounce on the turnover one play later. It is typical of the high work-rate and organisational qualities required of a defensive nine in the modern game.

Only a couple of minutes later, Gordon was present [and very much correct] in the ‘boot’ for an interception which led to the Waratahs’ third try.

 

 

Being a nine means sustaining the energy levels to make multiple involvements on the same play – filling the inside channels to pick off the pass, followed by a lung-bursting run and a cleanout over the support player – the nine is often required to become the first man on the scene in such situations! In the 66th minute, Gordon didn’t need any help at all after a strip-tackle by Ned Hanigan had created a fumble.

 


His presence in centre-field, in the boot-space behind the ruck also makes the scrum-half the prime cover defender when ball is moved to an edge by the opponent.

 

Gordon’s intervention prevents Sevu Reece from grounding the ball after the kick ahead and that makes all the try-saving difference on the play.

There will be times Schmidt feels he is staring into a deep, dark hole when he addresses the Herculean task of resurrecting Australian rugby. The prospect will not be as dauntingly blank when he examines the landscape at scrum-half.

There are a couple of solid veteran options in the shape of White and Gordon; a pair of promising younger men in McDermott and Lonergan, and a nine who offers something slightly off the beaten track in Fines-Leleiwasa. The Kiwi just has to find the right pecking order, and the right combination of starter and finisher. Then the Wallabies can really begin to buzz and purr, around a sleek new hub.

Comments

67 Comments
M
Mzilikazi 99 days ago

No question that Jake Gordon had a very timely top class game in front of the right man. He had a similar standout game against Qld. Reds 2/3 years ago. If the Tahs can back up this win of great note over the mighty Crusaders, then Jake will have every chance to take a great opportunity to be right up there as a match day 23 player.

However the way Qld. are playing, despite the loss last weekend, it is Tate McDermott who may have the better platform. I hope to be down at Suncorp this coming weekend, to see the Reds pay the Chiefs, and will thus have a good opportunity to really look at Tate’s game in a better degree of isolation and completeness than is possible form the TV screen.

In conclusion, there was an interesting bit of discussion on Cameron Roigard before the game last weekend. The point was made that of the different types of scrum halves, he is relatively big and powerful at 1.83m and 88 kgs, and is the extra backrow type. Conor Murray is in that category too, at 1.88m and 93 kgs. I am surprised Jake Gordon only comes in at 1.83 m and 87 kgs….he looks bigger…..but he would be that extra backrow type as well. Tate is 1.79m, 82 kgs, Nic White 1.75 m, 80 kgs, Lonergan 1.84m , 80 kgs, and Fines-Leleiwasa 1.73m and 81 kgs.

All very interesting to discuss, Nick. Thanks for the article.

A
Ardy 99 days ago

Nick, Jake is an excellent 9, but mainly for the Tahs. When he plays for the Wallabies maybe it’s the additional speed of the game or the different 10’s, then combine that with his penalty brain farks.
I wonder about him as a Wallaby for the next 2 years.

j
john 99 days ago

Jake Gordon can indeed be very good at times but then he goes and does something really really stupid. In fact a few things really stupid. It’s almost like he thinks he doesn’t have to be 100% committed for the whole game and can do whatever he likes. Porecki has this problem. So did Bernard Foley. So did Michael Hooper.

There is a common theme and factor here if you are smart enough to spot it. The theme is self entitlement. The common factor is …….

I suspect the Crusaders rolled over so Schmidt would have an excuse to select more Tah players. We’ve seen this tactic again and again and again.

R
Rugby 99 days ago

Great read.
Gordon did show tremendous energy in that game. Emptied the tank for sure.

The changing role of the halfback, is worth an article on its own.

Such a pivot position, the halfback.
In the last few years the half backs have become even more so involved in the game, with the tactic of box kicking and now as you say a shooter, rushing specific targets, or running as a sweeper.

Halfbacks used to be classed as a running half back or a passing halfback. The passing halbacks were classed as quick passer or one step passer. Quick can be advantageous but not so now if you pass to an isolated player and they get jackeled.

To the world’s dismay Rassie picked 4 halfbacks in his RWC squad (not wait you can’t do that). In the final he only played one. Maybe The pacific Lions should have taken Faf out of the game not Bongi. Maybe they were both targets?

Joe Schmidt will pick a halfback that he thinks will match the game vision (based on the players he has and his ideas) that he has and based on the coachability of that player.

Personally I like bigger stronger halfbacks.

there have been some greats
Dupont
George Gregan
Fabien Galthié
Fourie du Preez
Conor Murray
Mike Phillips
Joost van der Westhuizen

M
Mitch 100 days ago

Nick, it’s looking like Laurie Fisher will join Aussie Joe’s coaching staff as defence coach. Seems like the coaching bug will always be there for Fisher.

The effort to chase down Sevu Reece will have impressed Joe Schmidt enormously. Well and good to have the skills of Dupont but effort areas like the try saver on Sevu Reece don’t take skill.

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Adrian 100 days ago

Thanks Nick
I've certainly always valued Gordon for all of the reasons you outlined, plus the additional reason of him being able to function when the pack is being steamrolled.

From memory Rennie used him to start in matches where we were weak up front (ie no Tuopo &/or Bell &/or Alaalatoa) and to finish off the bench when the big guys went off. With his speed he was also useful off the bench as an emergency winger.

Frankly I’d have him in the 23 every time.

I’d start McDermott if we had 2 of Tuopo, Bell, Skeleton starting, because he is a huge threat with front foot ball. Otherwise I’d start Gordon, with White or LF on the bench. I’m not convinced about Lonergan who is sturdy and a good goalkicker, but I’m not sure what else.

d
d 100 days ago

Thanks Nick. It may have been your analysis a few years back or someone else…but I remember Gordon struggling to pass left to right. Is this area of his game improved? All of the highlights above suggest he has unbelievable energy and commitment and is a decent leader! I am interested to see how he would go playing for Australia more. Also despite a very disappointing brumbies game (I was very disappointed!!) What were your thoughts on Lonergan?

O
Otagoman II 100 days ago

I largely thought the Waratahs victory was built upon its defence. Gordon is a real threat on the oppositions ball. The 9 & 10 for the Crusaders have largely taken the blame but I feel something in not gelling well in the pack. They are not bullying their opposites and showing much creativity in their carrying. Possibly the loose trio is lacking dynamics. I suspect Gardener will have to make way for Lio Willie .

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