Rugby's vital link - the scrumhalf

Wed, 27 Sep 2017 16:10
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OPINION: Every good team has a good scrumhalf, and it follows that every great team has a great scrumhalf. Paul Dobson dissects the issue.

Look down the history of South African scrumhalves and there were great players amongst them - Freddie Luyt, who started the dive pass, Pierre de Villiers, Danie Craven, Fonnie du Toit and on to Divan Serfontein, Joost van der Westhuizen and Fourie du Preez.

Stephen Fry, a great Springbok in the early 1950s, captain against the British & Irish Lions, knew his way around a rugby team. He said on occasion: "The most important player in a rugby team is the scrumhalf. You should pick your best player and make him the scrumhalf."

In English the term scrumhalf stems from his position on the field. There were forwards, and they were the main players in a team. Behind them there were backs. The one furthest back was the fullback. To fill the gap between the forwards and the fullback, there were, usually two, half-way backs, the halfbacks. Then came those between the halfbacks and the fullback, those who were three-quarter way back, the three quarters.

The halfway backs  had interchangeable positions till early in the 20th century, Adrian Stoop of the Harlequins developed a separation. He preferred to play away from the scrum, and was called the outside half, the stand-off half or, an Eton term, the flyhalf, the flying half. Then one next to the forwards became the scrumhalf.

In Afrikaans he is the 'skrumskakel', where skakel means link, a switch. Craven would emphasise this when coaching the scrumhalf. He had to be the link. Every time the forwards got the ball, he had to be there to switch to faster play and the quicker he was at doing it, the more the team prospered. To do this the scrumhalf needed to be fast, fit and skilled.

Too often now other players are doing the scrumhalf's essential job - clearing the ball. We have prophalves, flankhalves, winghalves, lockhalves and even hookerhalves. It's wrong. Mind you when a prop produces a more credible pass than the scrumhalf, you begin to wonder about the scrumhalf's skills.

Twice in South Africa's rugby history, there have been scrumhalf crises. The first was in 1974 - when scrumhalf Nelie Smith was a selector and had most say in selecting a scrumhalf to replace the injured pair of Roy McCallum and Paul Bayvel. Ignoring genuine scrumhalves he chose Gerrie Sonnekus, a fine loose forward, to play scrumhalf.

The next scrumhalf crisis in South Africa's rugby history is now. We are in the midst of it. Look round the country and nobody stands out. There are good footballers, like Francois de Klerk, but not a really good scrumhalf to match the abilities of Will Genia, Aaron Smith, Conor Murray and perky Martin Landajo.

If you look at how the top scrumhalves go about their business, South Africa's present problems become more obvious.

Quick.

The first and last requirement is quick action - where quick means as fast as possible.

When it comes to passing, quick requires the ball to be passed immediately it is available, from the ground without picking it up and pulling it back to give impetus to the pass - and doing it equally well with both hands.

Immediately you see a scrumhalf standing up like a curious meerkat with the ball at his feet, you know that he is not good enough.

Once you see a scrumhalf pick up the ball, you know he is not good enough.

When you see a scrumhalf, take steps before passing or even in passing, you know certainly that he's not good enough.

There was talk recently of a new, young scrumhalf, regarded as a mixture of Joost and Fourie, a tall player.  And then you see him standing there, the ball at his toe, waiting and waiting, and you wonder what on earth he is waiting for. And while he is waiting, what are his opponents doing? For sure they are organising their defences, getting into place. The excuse is that his team are not in position to attack. Waiting will not cure that.

You even see the scrumhalf who will prod the ball forward to create even more time, making slow ball even slower. It would be doing rugby a favour if the referee blew it up for accidental offside. 

Our promising Joost-Fourie (the Golden Lions' Marco Janse van Vuren) must be cured of that as quickly as possible.

Look for the scrumhalf who does not step/walk/run to pass.  There are not too many in South Africa. Any above school teams?

And look what the opponents do while the scrumhalf does his crabwalk. The All Blacks use blitz defence, racing with long strides while the scrumhalf is suffling sidewards. The scrumhalf is still crabbing cannibalistically when the All Black defenders are already in Elton Jantjies's face. He is in trouble. He flips a hurried pass and Nehe Milner-Skudder intercepts and it's 17-0.

Jantjies's option is to take up a deeper position - usually on the left because that's his easier kicking foot.

Stepping with a purpose is another matter - to draw defenders to you while you flip the ball back inside to a wing who steams through the gap you have created. We are not talking about that. It's the purposeless crabbing that's wrong, just as pointless kicking is.

Now we have him passing, head down. Head down is important. The old folk would have us imagine a sheet of glass above out heads and we were not to touch that with the head. Head down and arms following through.

Then the ball can travel straight to where it should be going. Head up and arms coming up meant a ball that flew high and possibly wide.Now we need the scrumhalf's target.

The target should still be most often the flyhalf - not the prop to put his head down and hope to be tackled so that his side can do it over and over again in the accumulation of meaningless phases, really a succession of failures.

Who do Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara and Will Genia pass to most often? The flyhalf and look how splendidly their flyhalves play.

When Craven, aged 20 and not yet a provincial player, went on tour with the 1931-32 Springboks, his captain was Bennie Osler, whom Craven called Mister Osler in those less egalitarian days. Before his first match with the great man, Craven waited for instructions until, just before they went onto the field, he went and asked Mr Osler what his signals were. Mr Osler informed the upstart that he had no signals. "You pass the ball to me - in front of me and never above waist height."  If Craven or Pierre de Villiers passed and the ball went above Osler's waistband, Osler would shout Bliksem at his scrumhalf, which was why the name of Craven's famous dog was Bliksem.

Is the dive pass dead? Not altogether, for Dewaldt Duvenhage used it once against Griquas on Saturday. It had the merit of taking the scrumhalf away from maruading forwards. It kept his body low, his eyes fixed on his target and his arms fully outstretched towards the target.  There is still a place for it, even these days when the laws have been designed to make a scrumhalf so protected that he can get away with mediocrity. It may do the game a favour to put more pressure on scrumhalves. It could be done quite simply by making "out" apply equally to both sides at rucks. The referee, in those days of many instructions, could even call "Out'.

Lastly, the box kick, usually telegraphed. It can work if it's high enough to be caught by your own wide or just far enough for the catcher to be on the ground when he catches it and your chasers can then flatter him, and your forwards barrel over it to win the ball back for your side. Both worthwhile box kicks get the ball back. Fourie du Preez was good at both,

We haven't even mentioned the sudden, well-timed and incisive break by a scrumhalf - the way Genia and Perenara do it.

These are some aspects of scrumhalf play that can improve a scrumhalf's play and also provide criteria for choosing a scrumhalf that will not include embarrassing Gerrie Sonnekus. Mauro Bergamasco and Francois Hougaard.

London has an A to Z to help you get around the citry. South Africa has a rugby A to Z, Alan Zondagh, a top scrumhalf in his day, then a great coach and still a deep thinker on the game. He is worth learning from.

By Paul Dobson
@rugby365com