Focusing on fly-half: An unhealthy obsession?

Here’s a ‘starter for ten’ for you – has there ever been a better opening weekend of the Six Nations since it began back in 2000?  I’d have to say no.  Yes, we’ve had some great games and the odd classic at the beginning of the tournament before now, but I can’t recall all three games being as engrossing and entertaining as they were in this fourteenth edition.  It had great tries, tense finishes and amazing results as epitomised by Italy’s stunning victory over the French on Sunday afternoon.  The flip side of this, of course, is that last week’s blog now looks completely redundant (if not foolish).  That’s what you get for putting your opinions down in print!

A major factor in this feast of rugby was the starter AT ten, or rather six of them.  If there was any doubt over the importance of the outside-half position in the modern game, these last three matches swept it away.  The fortunes of the six sides were defined by the men who wore ‘10’ on their backs.  Out of the three ‘Man of the Match’ awards that were given this weekend, two went to outside-halves.  The first of these deserved recipients was England’s Owen Farrell, who showed composure and a consistency with his kicking that belies his twenty one years of age.  He also displayed some great skill in attack (the highlight being his pass that set up Geoff Parling to score).   There was also plenty to admire in Luciano Orquera’s match-winning performance for Italy.  He made an absolute mockery of the idea that ‘the Italians do not produce fly-halves’ with a performance that hasn’t been seen in Rome since the days of Diego Dominguez.  If he can maintain that form and complete Italy’s ‘missing piece of the puzzle’ then Ireland and Wales will not enjoy playing the Azurri in their own back-yard.

There were also some pretty dodgy performances at fly-half this weekend.  France’s Frederic Michalak summed up the French team as a whole towards the end of their 23-18 loss – nonchalant, nonplussed and ineffective.  Of course, you can’t entirely blame him for this as he regularly plays at scrum-half for Toulon.  Coach Philippe Saint-Andre’s decision to start with Michalak was a textbook example of the French disregard for the fly-half position and it totally backfired.  Scotland’s Ruaridh Jackson proved to be another ineffective selection choice.  He failed to gain control in the game and, as such, the Scots may go back to Greig Laidlaw in that position.  Dan Biggar did not have a great game for Wales on Saturday, particularly in his defensive play.  His charged-down kick by the excellent Rory Best was so telegraphed that I was probably not alone in shouting at the TV screen, “Don’t do it Dan!”, before he dutifully went and did it.  It was the kind of mistake that showed how much he still has to learn at international level where players do not enjoy the same time on the ball than they do in the league.

But why am I focusing on these players (and the position in which they play) when there were plenty of other contributing factors in the wonderful weekend just past?  According to interim Welsh coach Rob Howley it’s because I’m Welsh.   This is what the head coach said when announcing his selection of Dan Biggar this week:

It’s a big game for Dan. Obviously he understands that, but [because of] our Welsh culture and the way we talk about our 10s, it’s important that Dan is given an opportunity and a chance and he’ll certainly be given a chance from the Welsh management.

Howley went further and directly asked the media to ‘keep the pressure off’ Biggar which you won’t be surprised to hear sparked some debate amongst journalists.

Most people, this blogger included, recognise that the Welsh give particular attention to the fly-half position, but is this detrimental to the national side and should it be avoided?  Of course not!  The emphasis that is put on the number ten in Wales is not only understandable but also desirable.

To understand why we give so much focus to the outside half, you only have to look at the roster of great stand-offs we’ve produced in Wales such as Cliff Morgan, Barry John, Phil Bennett, Jonathan Davies, Neil Jenkins, Stephen Jones.  In the 60s and 70s the Welsh fly-half was the catalyst of great play while in the 80s and 90s the fly-half was a consistent beacon of hope in an otherwise barren pool of talent.  With a rich heritage such as this, why shouldn’t we expect big things from the man wearing ten?  There will be some who will claim such a focus isn’t justified given that it’s only one player out of fifteen, but as we’ve seen this weekend the outside-half is becoming, if anything, even more important than it used to be.  International number tens in the modern game have to be the perfect all-rounders not just a reliable kicker of the ball.  It’s no surprise that the best player in the world, Dan Carter, is an outside half (or a first five-eighth as the Kiwis so bizarrely call them).  Other countries recognise the importance of their fly-half and you can bet that there is as much debate echoing around the rugby clubs of England and Scotland as there is in Wales.

There is one difference to this trend in Wales, however, that is altogether darker.  The tendency to abuse our fly-halves rather than simply debate their inclusion sets us apart from other nations.  This has been made worse in recent times by the advent of social media where players are now much more accessible to the public than they ever used to be.  There is an unfortunate, and wholly wrong, assumption amongst certain sections of Welsh rugby society that because the player dons a Welsh shirt he must expect the verbal abuse he receives when he has a bad game.  The argument concludes that, being the most coveted and important role on the pitch, the fly-half is always going to get the worst of this.  It wasn’t a surprise therefore when the currently injured Rhys Priestland revealed he was seeking therapy from a sports psychologist to help him deal with mental pressure.

Such behaviour is obviously a step too far.  The Welsh rugby public have a responsibility to question their team but also to respect them as ambassadors of the game we love.  The press also have a responsibility in this regard.  I can understand that output from papers and news outlets will be determined by what people want to read or hear, but journalists have to show care when treading the line between the honest appraisal of a player and jingoistic abuse.  Perhaps it was this thought that was at the forefront of Rob Howley’s mind when he made those comments last Thursday.  Whatever Howley’s motivation it simply didn’t work as the Biggar/Hook debate continued before, during and after Saturday’s game.  Long may such a debate continue but let’s keep it in perspective eh Wales?

A positive note to finish on – who was the best fly-half on this glorious opening weekend?  My choice would be Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton who looks like a shoo-in for the Lions starting line-up at the moment.  His battle against England’s Farrell this Sunday is one of many intriguing contests to look forward to, but what price ‘Man of the Match’ coming from these two?

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