Exactly two years ago, when I was coaching England at the World Cup in France, one of the serious issues we faced was a limited range of options at scrum-half, that most important of positions – my old position, as it happens, although that was in the dim and distant past.
I wouldn't for a second wish to undervalue the contribution of Andy Gomarsall, who was one of the key figures in helping us reach the final against the expectations of a very significant majority, but Andy was already well into his thirties and therefore a shorter-term option.
It seems times have changed for the better. Last weekend I saw an exciting performance from the young Wasps half-back Joe Simpson, who used his startling pace to great effect against Bath. Indeed, I'd say he was one of the principal differences between the two sides. When you bracket Simpson with the likes of Danny Care at Harlequins, Micky Young at Newcastle and Ben Youngs at Leicester, not to mention the two older scrum-halves in the elite England squad, Harry Ellis and Paul Hodgson, it is clear that in terms of numbers, what was once a problem area is much less so now.
In fact, we may have the strongest bank of No 9s since Matt Dawson, Kyran Bracken, Austin Healey and a much younger Gomarsall were striving to catch the eye of successive England coaches. But resources are one thing, finished articles quite another. The challenge for all those who covet the Test shirt is to keep improving the technical side of their game – technique is the first thing that slips when the pressure comes on – while developing the more abstract, less easily defined attributes that separate the best from the rest.
Here's an illustration. One of the eye-catching things about Simpson at Bath was his footwork: by getting his feet in the right place before passing, he was able to sweep the ball away quickly and in one movement – not a dying art, perhaps, but one increasingly rare among modern scrum-halves. By comparison, the finest half-back in the world, Fourie du Preez of South Africa, has a good service rather than an electric one. But Du Preez brings other qualities to a team: an acute understanding of the game, which stems in part from the fact that he is one of the keenest and most inquisitive students of rugby I've ever met, and an ability to shape a match to his side's requirements.
In some respects, I see the No 9 as rugby's version of the Test wicketkeeper. Ideally, he should have what I call the three Vs: he must be vivacious, vigilant and vocal. I like my scrum-halves to be demanding of the people around them, to set the mood and be able to lift a team, to keep it alive during the dark moments of a game. They should also be tough, disciplined characters who are completely comfortable with the fact that, as a scrum-half is always in the line of fire, he has no hiding place.
If Rod Marsh, who spent years behind the stumps for Australia, had played rugby union rather than cricket, he'd have been a scrum-half. I spent some valuable time with Rod while he was running the national cricket academy here and I was setting up the rugby version, and I saw immediately that he was a natural communicator. I suppose you could say he was born to keep wicket, and it occurs to me that scrum-halves are also born rather than made. A little like hookers and open-side flankers, they have the position in their blood. Top-class scrum-halves have been known to take on different roles and make a fist of it, Healey being a classic example, but very few players move to No 9 from elsewhere and master the art.
The question is, will this new generation of bright English No 9s produce someone really special? A player like Chris Laidlaw, the New Zealand scrum-half of the 1960s who invented the spin-pass and left the rest of us struggling to catch up, or the brilliant Dave Loveridge, another All Black who astonished me with his speed of service? Or maybe even a Fourie du Preez? I'd like to think so, but there's a long way to go yet.
Booth has courage of conviction
By common consent, London Irish are playing some of the most effective rugby around. Is it any coincidence that they are also among the most ambitious clubs in the Premiership? I don't think so. We hear so much from coaches who profess not to care how their team play as long as they win that it was refreshing to hear something different from Toby Booth (right), who guided the Exiles to the Premiership final last season and looks like producing a team to be reckoned with once again.
After the convincing victory over Gloucester last weekend, Toby talked about the importance of his team showing some commitment to the idea they have of themselves. As they are one of the few sides confident enough to attack from any area of the field, I hope they stick to their guns.Reuse content