The number of tall scrumhalves who have ascended to the most rarefied heights of the game can probably be numbered on the fingers of one hand. If you grow to over six feet in height, the odds are already beginning to tip heavily against you. Most halfbacks are short, chippy, and very talkative. They are quicksilver-fast in word and deed, and built for work low to the ground.
The willowy outliers are exceptions to the rule: think 6’2” of Springbok legend Joost van der Westhuizen, who sadly passed away back in 2017; and 6’3” Mike Phillips, who won 94 caps for Wales, another five for the British and Irish Lions, and could have won most of them at his original club position of flank forward, had he continued his career in the back-row.
Back in the amateur era, Terry Holmes slipped seamlessly into the shoes filled by Gareth Edwards, for both his club Cardiff and with the Wales national team. They were not cast from the same physical mould at all. Sir Gareth was a five-foot-eight-inch fireplug and an athlete supreme. Holmes was five inches taller and at least 10-15 kilos heavier and, like Phillips 30 years later, could probably have handled the back-row just as well.
As he explained in a recent interview, “I was small when I was younger, but then from about 16 to about 19, I had a growth spurt.
“I probably wasn’t the ideal build for scrumhalf at that point, but I never thought of moving. That was my position by then.”
“Technically, I wasn’t as good as people like [All Black] Dave Loveridge. But I played a different game. If you were picking someone technically, you probably wouldn’t have picked me.”
Terry Holmes was selected for two Lions tours (to South Africa in 1980 and New Zealand three years later), but his contribution to both trips was cruelly cut short by injury. He started the first Test in 1983 against the All Blacks, only to suffer a tour-ending knee ligament injury. Predictably, his replacement was Scotland’s Roy Laidlaw, a card-carrying member of the shorter, ground-hugging brigade.
New Zealand never saw the best of Terry Holmes, but it may just be seeing its own best version of the tall half-back now, in the shape of the Hurricanes’ No 9 Cam Roigard. At over 6 feet tall, and tipping the scales at 90 kilos, Roigard would not fit the shoe size of an Aaron Smith or a Brad Weber, but he may just be the best fit for the ‘boot’ space in the New Zealand World Cup squad.
Like his predecessor in Wellington gold, TJ Perenara, he is the ideal foil for the man they call ‘Nugget’. Smith continues to offer a silky array of skills in passing, support and on-field leadership. His ability to hit the area outside the third defender with bullet-fast, arrow-straight deliveries was the single most important skill factor in New Zealand’s only win over Ireland during last July’s epic series.
Roigard can bring a more bruising physical presence in defence, and more threat around the base of the attacking ruck. He is also naturally left-sided whereas Smith is right-handed and right-footed, and that righty-lefty combination would suit the Kiwi ‘Cinderella slipper’ at halfback very nicely indeed.
For such a tall No 9, Roigard has surprisingly little ‘lift’ off the deck before passing the ball, which means there are few meaningful delays at the base from ruck to ruck.
The raw stats in Super Rugby Pacific 2023 (up until round nine) contain some real eye-openers:
- Roigard has carried the ball almost as many times (58) as all of his closest rivals (Aaron Smith of the Highlanders, Brad Weber of the Chiefs and Finlay Christie of the Blues) put together (66).
- Roigard has the same number of clean breaks as the other three jointly (8).
- Roigard has more tackle busts (28) and more successful offloads to his name (12) than his rivals have in total – (18) and (8) respectively.
If you want to know what point-of-difference looks like in rugby, nothing could make a clearer or more definitive statement about it, at least on paper.
What does it all look like in practice? For such a tall No 9, Roigard has surprisingly little ‘lift’ off the deck before passing the ball, which means there are few meaningful delays at the base from ruck to ruck. When required he can impart real zip to the delivery, especially off his dominant left hand:
The Highlanders’ tail-gunner at the end of the lineout (prop Ethan De Groot) is already right in the passing lane when Cam Roigard arrows a pass across the front of him to put Du’Plessis Kirifi into the hole.
Roigard is also the proud possessor of a booming kicking game off his left foot, and that helps to open up both sides of the field for the attacking side:
Defensively, his extra size is a big bonus in defence of the so-called ‘boot space’ behind the ruck. Most New Zealand teams like to play with a sweeper capable of filling the holes that appear in and around the breakdown, and the scrumhalf often finds himself trying to haul down forwards and backs with a weight and power advantage in this niche area of the game.
Cam Roigard reads play very well in this critical space:
The Hurricanes’ preparation against the Highlanders would have forewarned their No 9s about Folau Fakatava’s favourite move away from the base of the ruck, drifting flat before slipping a ball behind his back to a runner steaming up the middle. Cam Roigard reads the move and stands in the right space to make an interception. Moreover, he has the sustained speed to beat the Highlanders’ backfield to the goal line and convert the seven-pointer.
But it is Roigard’s breaking ability against the second defender out from the ruck that will interest the All Blacks selectors the most in the World Cup build-up. The Hurricanes’ halfback is especially lethal on breaks out to his left, and roughly three-quarters of his 2023 busts have been made out in that direction:
Nobody home at second defender? ‘Fine, I’ll take the gap’.
The Hurricanes are quite cute at sealing the ruck when Roigard breaks out to his left:
The Hurricanes’ first cleanout forward moves well beyond the centre-line of the ruck, far enough to frustrate the efforts of both Reds’ forwards (Seru Uru in the white hat, and hooker Matt Faessler) to get to the vital space at second defender and connect with the first Queensland back beyond it.
Cam Roigard has shown the ability to penetrate much smaller holes than those two:
In both of these examples, Roigard has to work much harder to reap the rewards of the threat he presents close to the breakdown. In the first example, Sam Cane and Luke Jacobsen get their spacing wrong after Damian McKenzie decides to fly out wide on the next phase of defence close to the Chiefs goal line.
In the second instance, Ricky Riccitelli is late into first defender, leaving the man outside him too tight to prevent a wide-arcing break by the St. Peter’s school product. In all of the three sequences, Roigard makes an accurate offload after the bust, ensuring that attacking momentum will continue and a score will result.
Round by round, match-in, match-out in Super Rugby Pacific 2023, it is becoming increasingly hard to overlook the claims of Cam Roigard to a spot in the New Zealand squad for the World Cup in France in September. He is probably the best line-breaking scrumhalf New Zealand has produced since Byron Kelleher.
It is not just his array of skills, it is their point-of-difference which complements those of New Zealand’s number one number nine, Aaron Smith, and which stands to give the New Zealand attack a dynamic change of direction in the last 20 or 30 minutes.
Where Smith is a righty, Roigard is a lefty. Where Smith is small and quick, Roigard is big and abrasive. Where one will zip those long, accurate passes away and stress the starters, the other will break, and break again against a tiring defence. There are not many success stories among scrumhalves over six feet tall at the highest level, but every scrap of evidence available suggests Cam Roigard could be one of them. New Zealand will do well not to ignore him – at least, not on the basis of height alone.
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