The anatomy of a winning rugby flyhalf

The only thing more predictable than the Swedish rail service is the annual forlorn hope of Super Rugby supporters that so sincerely believe that this year will be their year. I reside in the picturesque Mother City of South Africa, Cape Town and it is this annual display of denial that has finally driven me to put pen to paper.

Today, I confidently say that I know this Super Rugby season will end in tears. Here’s why.

Now that the world has done away with gladiatorial games, contact sports are the last arena where heart, desire, bravery, and effort will triumph over all else, and in some rare instances, it does. Recently a 14-man Ireland side defeated the Springboks to claim their first ever victory on South African soil. 

The courage and determination were awe-inspiring. The game was some of the best entertainment on African television this year.

But the truth is that in certain sports, where one or two positions are incomparably pivotal to success, you can reliably pick a loser even before the match starts. In rugby, that position is fly-half. And for so many years the Stormers have been that loser.

A domestic fly-half

The Stormers certainty of failure was not because of the coaching staff; they have had some of the finest at the helm, nor the team as a whole; more Springboks run out onto Newlands weekly than through the grinder at your local butcher. Not even the soul-destroying arrogance of the stadium announcer would drive you to pick them as a perennial also-ran. Rather, it was their stubborn inclination to stick with Peter Grant that cost them for so long.

Grant was an excellent domestic fly-half who left nothing on the park come the final whistle. He was a tactician and playmaker who could have raked in a fortune on European soil for his stability, structured play and off-field persona. Unfortunately, when you dive into the history of Super Rugby teams who have raised the silverware at the end of the season, you see that Grant was a dismal failure when compared to the 10s who have led their teams to Super Rugby glory.

An international fly-half

Dating back to the competition’s inception in 1996 the fly-half for the winning Super Rugby team has almost always been a National team fly-half. The winning team’s #10 averages 55 test caps (Daniel Carter 112, Steven Larkham 102, Andrew Merhtens 70, Morne Steyn 60, Quade Cooper 58, Aaron Cruden 37*, Bauden Barrett 36*, Carlos Spencer 35, Bernard Foley 27* and Derick Hougaard 8). That is an incredible list of players; these are some of the greatest to play the game. But beyond their Super Rugby achievements, they all played a pivotal role in their National team’s success.

When you look at the history of Super Rugby success in the context of that list, it’s not hard to laugh off the ambitions of an organization that holds on to a second-rate fly-half. Recent history has shown that to win the Super Rugby title; you need to have a fly-half who can dominate play, set the tempo and make critical decisions that can lead a team to victory when it matters.

So how do you know if your team’s fly-half has the goods to bring home that trophy, or if you should be writing off that $100 bet you made with Steve from accounting? Here is the anatomy of a winning fly-half.



A winning fly-half has time

The first and most immediately visible difference between an international 10 and their domestic counterparts are that the International-standard player will appear from the eye-test to have more time with the ball. The greats make everyone else look like they’re in slow-motion. They’re somehow able to make decisions without being rushed, and everything happens in a measured and controlled way for them.

This illusion of time is actually the ability to evaluate the game mentally, see what is in front of them, factor in the game plan and pre-match analysis and select the right option for the next play. This is a function of enhanced working memory and increased cognitive function. Sounds tough, right? It is tough! Time is what separates a good player from a great player. Whether it’s to relieve pressure or to exert it, players with time on the ball invariably know where the pressure points are at any given time.

If you come from an American Football background can compare this to a quarterback’s time to throw stats. The length of time required to go from snap to release. “Pocket” quarterbacks like Tim Brady and Peyton Manning consistently rank as the fastest to release, while in any given year Rookie quarterbacks will often rank in the bottom half for release time.

This difference between experienced players and Rookies isn’t that the Rookies’ lines are giving them more time, it’s because they more often than not are trying to extend a play with their legs, to help them see the option with more clarity to avoid an intercept, or incomplete pass. Manning and Brady can release faster because they can see the options available to them faster. They can pull the trigger quickly and don’t need to execute the play in order to find an open receiver. A majority of Manning’s touchdown passes are completed less than 2 seconds to release.

For more on the differences between Rugby and Football, check out this piece we published earlier this year.

A winning fly-half loves pressure

A great indication of the ability of your rugby team’s fly-half is looking at how they react to pressure in a game situation. When on attack, your team wants front-foot ball. Playing fly-half behind a forward pack that is gaining ground in the scrum, lineout and maul gives the backline momentum and forces the opposition to move backwards in order to remain onside.

If your forward pack is retreating, however, your side’s attack must start from the back foot. In these circumstances, the opposition has forward momentum and the defensive line will have a jump on coming up in your fly-half’s face.

Behind a retreating forward pack, the fly-half and scrum-half also have fewer options on attack. If the scrum is being dominated, this will often prevent any kind of back-row move. This leaves just two options from the scrum base – a static pick up from the number 8 to set up a ruck on the open side OR a standard play to the backline with no blind-side option. This predictability allows the defending fullback to be more decisive in entering the defensive line and gives the defending loose forwards a shorter route to the ensuing breakdown.

This places your team’s fly-half in a pressure situation. Running and passing have now become less attractive options. If you’re close to the opposition’s line and you can’t kick for territory, the best gauge of a quality fly-half will be; can they get the team across the advantage line in spite of this heavy pressure? Whether with a pass or they’re feet, a quality fly-half will be able to pickup a few meters in these situations. If you’re going backwards consistently, it might be time to look for a new pivot.

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A winning fly-half is tactical

The next skill on the fly-half totem pole is the ability to execute. Choosing the right option is one thing (and absolutely vital to a successful outcome), but having the skills to execute the play is without question the more important thing you need in a fly-half. Dan Carter, Steven Larkham, Johnny Wilkinson are all complete fly-halves. Whether it’s a long raking kick, a high ball to affect a counter attack, a flat skip pass or a drop into the pocket, they have the skill to execute what’s in their head.

A top fly-half will be as adept at tactically kicking an opposing team into submission as they will be at picking off a drift defense with a switch pass. This type of highly-refined skill set creates doubt in the defense and makes setting a defensive plan a nightmare for coaching staffs. Playing against a fly-half with a diverse range of skills means you’re almost certainly going to have a weakness exploited sooner or later.

An example of this is the New Zealand kicking game; Dan Carter is able to drive you back into the corners with uncompromising precision. But he can also put up a perfect high-ball for Savea or Milner-Skudder to contest. This makes the defense vulnerable. You are left with doubt as to where your should position your wing and fullback on defense.

If you pull your wingers too far back the gap for a nudge over the top is too big. If you pull them too far forward, Carter could turn you around and either drop it over the line deep in your red zone, or leave you with a kicking angle that will result in a massive territorial gain for the All Blacks. The fact that Carter has the ability to execute both options with consistent accuracy is what makes him so dangerous and causes so much doubt in the opposition.

A winning fly-half is physical

The final core attribute is physicality. A great fly-half doesn’t need their open side flanker to cover their channel on defense. A really physical fly-half will have the opposing team avoid their channel altogether.

When the opposition does run at the 10 channel, a winning fly-half will make their tackles just like everyone else in the defensive line. This allows peripheral players to contest the ball as opposed to making the tackle. You only have to look at the symbiotic relationship between the All Black’s Carter and McCaw to see how effective a physical 10 can be in allowing your loose forwards to contest possession at the breakdown.

With the confidence that Carter will make his stick, McCaw is often able to attack the breakdown at speed, giving him an advantage in contesting for the ball. A flanker who doesn’t have this same confidence must prepare for a tackle or to cover the offload, as opposed to focusing on the entry point to the ruck and getting his body in the correct position to contest the turnover and brace for the clean out.

Turning to attack, a physical fly-half poses another big problem for defenses: the offload. If your fly-half can stay on their feet when attacking the inside shoulder of a defender, they are going to draw in an additional defender, because a midfield line-break is too great a risk for the defending team.

This ability to offload in the tackle causes outside defenders to second guess drifting across field and loose forwards to commit to the same tackle meaning they cannot contest the ensuing breakdown. If the fly-half attracts 2 defenders and is tackled, this can provide quick ball from the ruck and an overlap for the rest of the backline.

Markers for fly-half success

There are certain markers for success and when you analyze fly-half play. We suggest considering their time with the ball, reaction to pressure, ability to execute the team’s strategy and overall physicality as the most important indicators as to whether you have a winning fly-half on your team.


Juan Mouton

Juan Mouton

Juan is a South African freelance rugby writer for blogs, news and television programs. His primary focus is on Southern Hemisphere and Test Match rugby including interviews, exclusives and features with current international players.