There has been a changing of the guard at fly-half but it's up front that counts
When supporters scan a Guinness Six Nations squad sheet, there’s usually a set pattern in which they look at the players/positions. One which is largely unique to that supporter. Much like a menu in a restaurant, some go straight to the grills, some to the breads, others the wine – most to the wine. But there is without doubt one position that most supporters set their eyes on when a team is announced, and that is the fly-half.
It’s a situation that is unlikely to change as we progress through this year’s Six Nations. We have seen arguably the most extensive replacement of senior outside halves in the history of the competition. With Johnny Sexton retiring, Dan Biggar doing the same and Owen Farrell moving to Paris, the tournament is losing 357 caps.
That’s more caps than Ice Cube has tried on, let alone owned. And with that of course comes the opportunity for a stack of new young players to build their Test careers. Talking of outside halves, Stephen Jones has written about the next gen of tens in the new edition of Rugby World magazine – which also comes with a must-have wallchart. It doesn’t matter how old you are, a wallchart is still living the dream and you can get in the magazine on shelves now or download it for free here.
It’s easy to see why supporters are focused on the No 10. Historically it was the key position. Other than the scrum-half, tens have always had the most touches per game and therefore the opportunity to leave the biggest positive, or sometimes negative, impression on the game.
In the amateur game, tens also had arguably the most creative space in which to operate. Pre the introduction of rugby league-style defences and ultra mobile back-row forwards, the ten had as much space and time as a centre or full-back. But that is no longer the case. The ten, in the modern game, has less space than a first-time buyer in Clapham. With back-row forwards pushing up and out at speed and inside-centres doing the same thing, outside halves now find themselves in rugby’s equivalent of a car crusher.
They are of course still one of the most important players on the field. Especially with regards to tactical kicking and often goalkicking – especially with the emergence of the kick-pass. But with the increased influence of inside-centres as a second receiver and full-backs now occupying a far more responsible distribution role amongst the wider pods, the ten’s role has been diluted. It is now often one of the centres or the No 15 who delivers the big pass over the top, not solely the ten.
Is it the front five Six Nations?
One of the other reasons we should perhaps move our attention away from outside halves. Is that it denigrates the role of others in the team – especially the second rows and tighthead props. On average, in most leagues, tightheads and second rows earn the most money. There is a simple reason for that, they’re massive compared to the rest of the population.
That isn’t to say that because of their size, they simply wander into their director of rugby’s office, hang them out of the window by their throat and then choke-slam them on the boardroom table, should their wage demands not be met. The reason the big players earn the big bucks is because there are so few of them knocking about. Maybe it’s now the front five Six Nations?
In Wales for example, the major headlines from Warren Gatland’s Six Nations squad wasn’t that he’s started an almost total rebuild in the front row (which is the right thing to do), but on the three new outside-halves who have been selected. Now, let’s not get things twisted, Sam Costelow, Ioan Lloyd and Cai Evans are excellent players.
Lloyd in particular has been impressive this season and he showed that by helping to inspire that almighty Wales comeback in the second half against Scotland on Saturday. His ability to step out of contact has been much needed – given that the Scarlets pack has largely been playing on the backfoot to the point that the gainline, at times, has seemed as far away as the Tropic of Capricorn. But whilst sidesteps get you on YouTube, they rarely get you onto the podium – scrums, lineouts and more importantly five-metre lineout mauls do, as the tries on the weekend reinforced.
You need only look at the increase in try-scoring hookers over the past five seasons to see the importance of the set-piece. Scrums win penalties and the resulting kicks to touch create five-metre lineouts (especially scrums in the middle of the field where they allow for a shallow attacking angle into touch). Once a team has a five metre driving maul, and it’s landed and formed cleanly, it’s harder to defend than a Tory MP wearing a gold suit and diamond loafers.
So, the next time you check your nation’s team sheet, maybe look past the ten for a second or two. Move up the list and check your tighthead (both starting and bench), then your locks (both starting and bench) and from there you’ll know just how influential your ten will be. Have a great rest of the tournament. It was some start.
Is it a front five Six Nations or the year of the new fly-halves? Let us know what you think on social media or firstname.lastname@example.org