No 10s have long been revered, such as Jonny Wilkinson, Dan Carter, and Stephen Larkham, but the modern stand-off’s role is changing. Rugby World reports
Is fly-half still rugby’s most important position?
It’s remarkable how much a line and a circle on a player’s back can signify. For decades, the fly–half has been a tactical, attacking and emotional focal point, carving the unshaped clay of their team-mates into a sculpture made in their own image. Successful teams are remembered by their ten. Sit back and listen to the roll call: Kyle, John, Bennett, Porta, Fox, Lynagh, Stransky, Larkham, Wilkinson, Carter…
They inspired a generation of modern fly-halves, as Toulouse’s Zack Holmes remembers: “Larkham, Wilkinson and Carter, they were the big fly-halves when I was growing up. They were the talisman of the team. They touched the ball a lot, probably the most of anyone, and their involvement drew me to the position, the responsibility of it. You just got involved in the game all the time.”
Yet the power of the all-controlling fly–half didn’t necessarily always lead to the greatest spectacle. Wasps fly–half/centre Jimmy Gopperth says: “We used to see ten-man rugby, especially when the weather was poor, and we had to do that a bit when I was at Newcastle. It was forwards and then give it to the ten – he’ll kick it down and then the forwards will go again. Back in the day, you got scores of 6-3, 9-6, and it was a grind. It was ten-man rugby.”
It’s a far cry from the most recent iteration of the Premiership, which was one of the highest-scoring seasons in history – and demonstrated why the fly–half may no longer be crucial.
Is fly-half still rugby’s most important position?
Bristol Bears possess one of the most swaggering attacks to have graced the competition in recent years. Attack coach Conor McPhillips, who played throughout the Noughties, believes teams now need to avoid such a dependency on a single position.
“Defences are now much better,” McPhillips explains. “I think that’s the influence of the mid-to-early 2000s, when a lot of rugby league defence coaches came in, meaning line speed and collisions became much quicker and harder. Some teams have been really reliant on their tens, but for us we don’t want the Bears to be reliant on one player. All it takes is for that one player to be injured for six months and then the walls come tumbling down.”
Instead, a wealth of teams now play with second receivers in their back-line. England favour a ten-12 axis of George Ford and Owen Farrell; New Zealand have boasted Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett in a ten-15 combination. Fewer and fewer international sides play solely through ten. This isn’t just a story of fly-halves but of full-backs and centres.
Will Hooley played full-back for Saracens and the USA in 2020-21, but began his rugby life as a fly–half. For him, moving to the backfield isn’t a shift away from the playmaking role but merely allows him to see things from a different perspective.
“I always had this image in my head that I should be like Jason Robinson, stepping people for fun,” he tells Rugby World. “But after speaking to (Saracens backs coach) Kevin Sorrell, I realised the natural attributes of a fly–half – seeing space, being able to communicate – sit brilliantly at full-back. I can see even more space, give even more communication to fly-halves.
“How can you come up with a plan to rip teams apart? Ultimately, I believe that it’s by having two playmakers on the pitch. I think you’d struggle to find any team now who doesn’t have that.
“At Saracens, you see the likes of Alex Goode or Max Malins step into ten while Owen Farrell is on the other side of the field. When you have two playmakers on the pitch, it’s another general, another set of eyes, taking pressure off the fly–half.”
Bath stand-off Tian Schoeman agrees, saying: “The fly–half is still obviously important because he needs to direct the team around the pitch. It just helps if he has a few cannons, not just the one.”
One castle full of cannons is Toulouse, where Holmes shares the ten jersey with Romain Ntamack and Thomas Ramos. Holmes and Ntamack are adept at centre, with Ntamack winning two U20 World Cups from 12, while Ramos has started for France at full-back. Fly–half is possibly no longer a specialist position.
“When you look at traditionally attacking off ten, attacking off the forwards, it can be somewhat predictable,” says Holmes. “We prefer to play with more chaos, more disorder, to make it harder for the defence. You want to look at it in terms of lessening the burden on the ten and allowing multiple decision-makers opportunities to play in the shape, not just put all the decision-making process on the ten.”
In England fly–half Helena Rowland’s experience, the women’s game is going through an identical transition. “For the three teams I’ve played for – Saracens, Loughborough and England – we’ve tried to implement that ten-12 dual playmaker system,” she says.
“Centres are starting to think and play more like a fly–half but just wider out, splitting the pitch so you have a playmaker each side. A lot of the load has been taken off from a communication point of view, and coaches see value in having more than one person that can direct the game and step up in that first-receiver role.”
For Holmes, this could be permanent: “In my opinion, the way to make attack more dominant will diminish the role of the fly–half. A fly–half who touches the ball lots when other players don’t makes it easier to defend. Teams will look to change the point of attack, to make the defence less stabilised. That’s how I see rugby going forward.”
No longer the sole conduit of their side’s attacking games, other positions could easily be considered more crucial. While at Leicester, Richard Cockerill said the highest-paid player should be the tighthead and the second highest his replacement. The importance of the set-piece means that lineout-calling locks might be most highly prized, or even a ball-winning openside.
According to Esportif Intelligence data, fly–half is no longer the highest-paid position in the Pro14 – locks now have the biggest salaries. And while tens are still the top earners in the Premiership and Top 14, those big-money signings at stand-off in the English league have traditionally struggled to fire their teams up the table.
If you look at last season’s final, two homegrown fly-halves, Joe Simmonds and Marcus Smith, led their team to the big dance. So, is the age of the fly–half dead? Perhaps not quite yet.
Schoeman considers how expectations have changed, saying: “You sign a big fly–half for a lot of money and you expect magic, you know? You expect him to make the breaks, to be the pillar of the team. But if you come to the UK, it’s a chess match. It’s a strategic game where you try to outsmart the other guys.”
This perhaps reaches the heart of how the fly–half has evolved. Analyst Robbie Owen, better known as Squidge Rugby, has attracted a legion of fans on YouTube for his innovative interpretation of the current game and has puzzled over the exact role of the modern ten.
“Increasingly, the fly–half can be viewed as just one of the other backs, because so many teams are so system-led,” he says. “However, the ten is still making a lot of decisions, it’s just far less obvious. Although they’re still an extremely important cog, it’s more to do with what they do when they don’t have the ball.
“They have a kind of vision which is incredibly important and are constantly involved in managing their team’s shape. They’re almost a coach on the field a lot of the time and that’s crucial, not them providing flashy passes or little kicks.”
Owen picks out Ford, Simmonds and Bristol’s Callum Sheedy as particularly adept at fulfilling this new role, and McPhillips, Sheedy’s coach at Bristol, is in agreement. He considers the fly–half the quarterback of the team, the player who needs to manipulate structures to ensure the attack is firing.
“I think it’s evolved for us,” says McPhillips. “Tens for us are in charge of the overall structure, but they’re listening to players around them in the game and using information given to them by the coaches in the week.
“Callum knows he isn’t the biggest, fastest, best kicker or passer, but through his alignment with the coaches and understanding of playing the Bears way, we talk about him being like that coach on the pitch.”
Modern attacks still place a heavy burden on the fly–half, but rather than being the system, in the mode of a Larkham, Wilkinson or Carter, it is their job to execute the system. They are less the builder of the back-line and more the architect, which comes with a unique set of mental challenges.
“Forgive us arrogant fly-halves,” Hooley says, “but fly–half is still one of, if not the hardest position on the pitch. I believe that fly–half is one of the most strenuous mental challenges in the game.”
While perhaps they are no longer specialists in terms of skill-set, with some props now capable of throwing flat 30m passes, fly–half remains a unique psychological challenge, as Rowland explains.
“Although there might be a lot of people who can make a pass or make a decision, I don’t know how comfortable they are to do that phase-in, phase-out,” she says.
“You’re meant to be a fly–half for a reason; it’s because you can step up in those situations and make the right decision. I’ve maybe struggled a bit with being that decisive voice, saying this is what we’re doing and why. I’m still learning now, and I think that’s where most of the pressure comes from.”
Modern rugby has seen the fly–half evolve a crucial skill. No longer do they have to touch the ball every phase, call every move or be the sole voice. Think of them instead as analysts with a killer pass or a coach with a deft boot. They’re an architect, designing structures. It’s not about putting the team on their back. That age has gone. It’s now about bringing the team inside their brain.
This article originally appeared in Rugby World’s July 2021 edition.
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