Great 10s take time

Gavin Rich

When a Dutch friend attended her first rugby match, all she could talk about afterwards was Willem. It was all Willem this and Willem that. Nothing about the game other than Willem.

Who the hell is Willem? Good question. It was worth asking even at the time, which was somewhere back in 2009/2010, when Willem de Waal was playing Currie Cup for Western Province. The flyhalf had been anonymous in general play, but because he kicked all his team’s points he was rugby’s equivalent of David Beckham to the uninitiated.

I thought about this when someone propelled the Sharks’ Robert du Preez into the Springbok mix on the basis of his goal-kicking exploits against the Blues. There is, of course, so much more to a flyhalf’s responsibilities than place-kicking, and there is some irony in the fact that Du Preez is actually playing No 10 at the Sharks ahead of Curwin Bosch.

If rugby was like American football and you had a specialist kicker who focused just on the kicking, Bosch would play every game. However, because flyhalf is considered a special position that demands extra responsibility, maturity and decision-making, Bosch is now serving an apprenticeship at fullback.

It’s not a universally popular decision among those who believe the best way to learn is to be in the saddle, just as not everyone was in agreement with head coach John Dobson’s decision to play Damian Willemse at fullback rather than pivot when he had a Currie Cup to win in 2017.

Yet there is precedent. Seeing that Dan Carter is so often mentioned as the embodiment of the perfect flyhalf, it is instructive to recall that he played much of his early senior rugby as an inside centre. In other words, he was eased into top rugby without the burden of the extra responsibility that comes with playing 10. Beauden Barrett in turn was allowed to develop in the shadow of Carter by playing off the All Blacks bench. By the time he became the front-line flyhalf he had already grown into a mature and experienced player.

The flyhalf who came closest to challenging Jonny Wilkinson in the years before Carter was Australia’s Stephen Larkham, who started out his rugby life as a fullback. Larkham was already a mature player when he was retreaded to No 10 so it is interesting to recall how he struggled initially with the switch.

When the Springboks won their first Tri-Nations in 1998, the deciding game was against the Wallabies at Ellis Park. The late Joost van der Westhuizen was instructed to pressurise Larkham and take him out of his comfort zone. The plan worked a charm and it was by exploiting Larkham’s vulnerabilities that the Boks won.

Larkham did learn though, and he got his own back on the Boks by dropping the goal that won the Wallabies the 1999 World Cup semi-final. Again, not that kicking points should define a flyhalf. History reflects that many of the most memorable goal-kicking exploits didn’t even come from flyhalves. New Zealand’s Don Clarke was a fullback, and Okey Geffin, who kicked South Africa to a 4-0 win over the All Blacks in 1949, was a prop.

Butch James was able to focus on his general play at the 2007 World Cup because his team had a place-kicking metronome at fullback by the name of Percy Montgomery. Montgomery will be remembered as a fullback, yet he was installed as the flyhalf in Harry Viljoen’s first game as Bok coach, against Argentina in Buenos Aires, when the team was instructed not to kick.

The switch to flyhalf was made all the more difficult for Montgomery by the way his potential to control play was cut in half. Telling a flyhalf he cannot kick is like telling Aiden Markram he must score runs quickly but he must do so without employing his cover drive.

The flyhalf is often referred to as the general because of the game-managing requirements of the position, and no matter how young a flyhalf is when he is first selected, he immediately assumes a quasi-leadership position. Sometimes the scrumhalf can be the general, and in that sense both James and Morne Steyn were able to shine in the years that Fourie du Preez wore the Bok No 9, but Du Preez was a freak.

A pivot can be a good rugby player without being a good flyhalf, and that is why Stormers assistant coach Paul Feeney has said he wants to wait before pronouncing Willemse as a potentially great flyhalf. Does he have the game managing computer that is needed by a top flyhalf? We know he has the talent, but only time will tell if he can be a Jonny Wilkinson.

That is why even after Willemse’s good games the talk from the Stormers coaches invariably focuses on the need to manage him.

There haven’t been many world-class flyhalves through history who were first choices in their teens and there is a reason for that. It is one position where that old mantra that if you are good enough you are old enough isn’t true. You’re only good enough when you’ve learnt enough.

- Gavin Rich

Let's chat

  • Shane Fredericks

    My question is – When can we say that the young fly-half has learnt enough? What must he do to prove that he has learnt enough and according to whose criteria? Elton Jantjies has been our flyhalf for the past couple of years and yet he has not proved to be making it. Pollard is hopefully back this year and will probably be our flyhalf, but who will be his deputy? Bosch, who is currently playing fullback? Jantjies who is not making it when playing for the Boks. Du Preez and Willemse? Have these two learned enough?

    • Dr Hoffman

      Please name the boks who “have proved to be making it” Cause u are insinuating that the boks were all a massive success except Jantjies? Name them all except Marx. I challenge u.

      • Herman Schroder

        Well said Doc. In the test matches Jantjies had a torrid time playing in the most important position on the field surrounded by incompetents and a non existent game plan by a clueless coach. All the players suffered as a result.

        It is said that no SR team can win the title without world class half backs. Gavin even reported on that in a recent article. I’ve been saying it for years. The Stormers are a prime example. They haven’t had a decent half back pairing for years and combined with their dinosaur like coaching from Coetzee and now Fleck they never had a chance and history proves it.

        When the Du Preez’s, Pollard’s and Willemse’s of this world can take their teams to a SR final then I will look at them seriously. Jantjies has proved it over three seasons and he is the master of expansive rugby in this country. If Rassie opts for ( and I suspect he will ) the usual SA safety first ‘dom krag’ option then don’t pick him let one of the others take over and lets continue the Boks slide into obscurity. My opinion, Cheers.

        • Herman Schroder

          Correction, it is of course this article by Gavin. Cheers.

  • Naas.

    Gavin, I agree. No 10’s like Dawie Snyman are very rare and comes along read-made only every 40 years. Willemse has great potential but is not of Superugby standard yet.

  • Herman Schroder

    Hi Gavin, your nemesis Herman Schroder here. I see this article was published before last Saturdays Lions / Stormers game but I must say your very constructive take on Jantjies exploits in Saturday’s game on the Super Sport platform was very pleasing for me. Nicely objective and positive in many respects, it was a joy to read. Well done.

    Which however brings me to a a rather touchy subject. As you know we have had many a battle on Super Sport over the past four years especially with regard to Heyneke Meyer, Alistair Coetzee in both his Stormers and Boks guises as well as your initial rather frigid attitude to the best team in SA by a country mile the Lions. At times things did become somewhat heated and regrettably personal which led me to being ”blocked” by you ( I assume ) and Super Sport. While I do believe most of my dire predictions for the Boks eventually did come to pass I believe it’s time for bygones to be bygones.

    May I suggest that you kindly ”unblock” me so that constructive debate may be re-established on the Super Sport forum which I note has been sadly lacking of late with minimal comments by all the usual suspects of the past. So maybe the columnists need some more robust (yet constructive) input from joe public to stimulate some in depth discussions and of course much needed humour, don’t you think ?.

    I would appreciate your giving this some consideration and advise me either by a response on this thread or via my email address below. The ‘block’ is currently under my wifes name ” Janet Schroder” which I cunningly changed to to confuse you guys but you wily old foxes weren’t to be fooled. I look forward to your response. Cheers.

    • Tank Lanning Tank Lanning

      Hi Herman. Shot for the comment. I chatted to Gavin and he has no say as to who SuperSport block or don’t block. And we also obviously have no say, so I am afraid it’s to the comments here on All Out Rugby you go. And we love a big debate, as long as it is polite and respectful! I’ll try to get Gavin involved, but he is not much of a comments guy ….

      • Herman Schroder

        Hi Tank, Many thanks for your response it’s really appreciated. It’s a bit puzzling why Super Sport would block me without input from the main recipients of my comments though don’t you think ? Seeings as you are in the loop could you perhaps refer me to someone at SS that I can take this up with ? Maybe ask Gavin to bat on my behalf, lol.

        What puzzles me even further is that some of the commentators on these sites are obnoxious and foul to be frank but remain untouched. I always considered my comments to be well weighted but hard hitting and always providing facts to back up my arguments. Although I’ve been ‘banned’ for close to a year people are still asking where the hell I am, especially when the Lions take a beating Lol.

        Look forward to your response and yes I will be interacting on this site in future. Once more thanks for responding, Cheers.

  • Herman Schroder

    Hi Gavin, In case you don’t know my gmail address here it is. Thanks.

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