The scrum-half is rarely the glamour player of a rugby team. He is so often the smallest, he doesn’t often kick for points, he isn’t given the chance to run from deep and his role is so reliant on his teammates that a good scrum-half is often an unnoticed cog in a well-oiled team.
It is, however, a crucial position and arguably the most important on the pitch. He is a marshall to the forwards and the compass for the backs. No other player on the field has as much control over the flow, pace or dynamics of a rugby game than the number 9.
To demonstrate this, a short comparison between two players
Case 1: Mike Philips | Wales
Philips breaks the rules for a scrummie, at 6’3 he is too tall and bulky to fit the mould and his running often lacks the dart and the footwork of a quintessential 9. Nevertheless he shone at the world cup with strong running, good direction and brilliant awareness.
His ability to think the game makes up for his stature, his tries in the World Cup demonstrated a cool head and a composure that is all too easy to lose when the white line beckons.
He played a sharp tournament…
His try against Ireland could be watched without seeing a slow-mo foot drifting towards the touchline. He played a sharp tournament and it is a shame that he won’t make an appearance in the final.
Philips still looks and runs like a centre but was able to command the game and put Wales on the front foot when he had ball in hand – the litmus test for a scrum-half.
Case 2: Ben Youngs | England
On the other hand Ben Youngs did not shower himself in glory. Despite not making many overt mistakes – and he made some good plays – he was a weak point in the English line.
It was a line that didn’t need more weak points and Youngs’s delivery was so slow that it dragged the pace of the English attack down, knocked runners off their rhythm and obstructed the flow of play.
Youngs is not a bad player but so often he took a few steps with ball in hand when it needed to have been shipped quickly out to the fly-half. Quicker and smarter defences noticed this and were able to disrupt the passage of play even more.
…rugby was fairly stagnant in the tournament…
When running with the ball he wasn’t notable, English rugby was fairly stagnant in the tournament but Youngs failed to feed the big men or lead the charge himself.
A substitution often speeds up play – fresh legs are easy to spot after 70 minutes – but bringing Wigglesworth on gave the English attack more spark, more momentum and, ultimately, allowed Tuilagi to hit the gain line at speed.
Those extra steps were also backwards which denied Youngs the opportunities to break the defensive line, which Philips so ably exploited.
Images courtesy of Mike Philips and Ben Youngs