How are rugby matches are won and lost? Scrums and line-outs, destructive defending, clinical attacking? Forwards assure you it’s about winning up front, while the backs, remarkably, insist it’s all about attacking verve.
Each element is important, and there will be no shortage of pre-match analysis ahead of this weekend’s Rugby World Cup semi-finals about the battle at the breakdown.
Securing your own possession and disrupting the opposition’s is crucial, and quick ball is indeed the oxygen that every rugby team needs. But it is only the first step. Speed and quality of decision-making with the ball is what makes the real difference, which is where the scrum-halves comes in.
As the pace of the professional game increases, a quick-thinking scrum-half becomes more important. Where gaps do occasionally exist, they are very quickly shut down in modern defensive systems.
South Africa’s first try against Japan on Sunday was a perfect example of a scrum-half creating a score, Faf de Klerk capitalising on a huge shove by his forward pack to free Makazole Mapimpi on the short side.
But in the second half against the Brave Blossoms de Klerk took total control. As Springbok power began to tell he orchestrated their fearsomely strong driving maul, and scored a try himself after one 30-metre shove up the middle.
It all evoked memories of Fourie du Preez’s decisive contribution to South Africa’s 2007 World Cup triumph. England fans in particular will remember the way du Preez tormented the defending champions in that 36-0 pool stage dismantling in Paris. Just as in this modern-day Boks team, the scrum-half was their creative lynchpin.
As for modern-day England, Eddie Jones’s selection for the quarter-final clash with Australia proved 100 per cent correct, with George Ford benched and Owen Farrell switching to No 10 to accommodate Henry Slade at No 13.
But while Jones is happy to alternate his combinations at fly-half and centre, the idea of Jones dropping scrum-half Ben Youngs for Saturday’s semi-final against the All Blacks is clearly preposterous.
Youngs is the player who makes England tick. At his best he is one of the finest tactical minds in the game, capable of spotting space behind the opponent’s defence and kicking accurately to exploit it, or knowing when the time is right to bring England’s strike runners into play.
From one first-half line-out against the Wallabies, Youngs bypassed his fly-half entirely, going straight to England’s midfield destroyer Manu Tuilagi, thus keeping his team’s attacking game fresh and unpredictable.
As a young player at Leicester Tigers Ben Youngs had a few useful pointers from French team-mate Julien Dupuy. The French like their No 9s to run the game and for the past decade England have benefited from Youngs’ willingness to take responsibility for key decisions on the field.
For their part, Australia lacked precision at crucial moments in that last-eight clash against England, but also caused their opponents serious problems at times. The smooth and speedy service of Will Genia was the most important factor in how effectively they moved through attacking phases.
All Blacks scrum-half Aaron Smith scored twice in the quarter-final demolition of Ireland, dismissing any suggestion he might be a weak link for the defending champions.
New Zealand’s double-playmaker selection with Richie Mo’unga at No 10 and Beauden Barrett at No 15 arguably makes Smith all the more important: Steve Hansen’s team like playing an unpredictable, flexible attacking game with both Mo’unga and Barrett possessing the creative skills to dismantle any opposition. But Smith is the man who decides how and when they will be brought into play.
As Australia discovered in the pool stage, scrum-half Gareth Davies is one of Wales’s key threats, his spectacular interception try setting them on the way to a win that saw them top the pool and avoid England in the semi-finals. A brilliant piece of athleticism and skill by replacement scrum-half Tomos Williams, somehow keeping an Australian kick in play in the dying minutes, was also a defining moment.
As we approach two matches this weekend that will go such a long way to defining the tournament, and determine the finalists, it’s the quality and speed of decision making by scrum-halves that will make the difference.