Imagine the perfect prototype scrum-half with the whippiest pass, most resolute defence, oodles of game intelligence and sheer force of will, well Mike Blair has done just that as he's picked all-time top five No 9's
He’s Scotland’s most capped scrum-half, has played at three World Cups and is a British and Irish Lion. Throw in domestic stints in Scotland, France and England and you’d expect Newcastle Falcons No 9 Mike Blair to have a fair few options as he picks five of the finest No 9’s he’s faced…
Best for physicality: Justin Marshall
“Whereas Will Genia looks for space, Marshall loved taking the ball into contact and looking for offloads. He was a very smart rugby player who read the game extremely well. He didn’t have the most refined all-round skillset but he made up for it with his abrasive nature. In fact, his brawn around the breakdown was fundamental to the All Blacks success. He came over to the UK for his last few years of his career and I’m sure Mike Phillips would have picked up a few tips from him when he was at the Ospreys.”
Best for bloody mindedness: Gary Armstrong
“I was at my most impressionable stage between eight and 10 and that was when Armstrong was Scotland’s No 9 when they won the Grand Slam in 1990. He was absolutely key to that success and a really tough competitor. He hated losing. I actually played against him in 2004, when I was with Edinburgh at the start of my career and he was at the Borders. He’d lost his legs by then but I remember him punching me at the bottom of a ruck, as if to say, ‘I’ll show this young whippersnapper who’s boss’. He was giving me the treatment to see what I was made of which I’ll take as a compliment of sorts…”
Best for defence: Joost van der Westhuizen
Although Joost was rightly renowned as a try-scorer – he was deadly from 5 metres out scoring something like 38 tries for the Springboks – I have clear memories of him taking Jonah Lomu down in the 1995 World Cup Final. Ask most aspiring young scrum-halves who they looked up to as a kid, and his was the name that came up more often than not. At the time, he was physically intimidating for a scrum-half so to see a scrum-half tackling like that was a real eye-opener. In a way, he redefined the role for others to follow. Like Justin Marshall, if you looked at his skill-set for a nine, it wasn’t the strongest, but as a competitor he was absolutely ferocious.
Best passer of the ball: Bryan Redpath
Bryan was always the guy you wanted to pass like. He was very sharp off both hands and had a real whip to his pass, which, let’s not forget is one of the key ingredients of the nine’s role. It was only recently I realised he was the highest scoring scrum-half in the Premiership, until Danny Care recently broke it with 35-odd tries. My Scotland career started at the tail end of his, so I spent a year with him. His relationship with Gregor Townsend was very important. He gave him that extra millisecond of time and his snappy service also helped the likes of John Leslie and Alan Tait run onto the ball. After he left the Scotland he had a fantastic few years at Sale, which showed his class.
Best for intelligence: Will Genia
Will Genia is a very clever rugby player. I first noticed him at 19 or 20, before he came to influence the Wallabies. At the breakdown, he’d produce these sumptuous Gregan-like flip-balls and bring Digby Ioane into play, that’s when I knew he had something about him. He has an uncanny knack of bringing others into the game, challenges the line really well and always picks the right options. He has adapted his game over the years. As nine’s are now expected to have a better tactical kicking game, and he’s adapted his game accordingly to move with the times.
Mike Blair is a HSBC ambassador who was talking ahead of the Glasgow Round of the HSBC Sevens World Series www.irbsevens.com. To read our exclusive review of the Hong Kong Sevens, pick up the June edition of Rugby World – on sale May 6!