Super Rugby: It’s time to unshackle our Tens
The Western Force smashed the Reds to open up the Australian Super Rugby conference
The Roar has been rather blessed with its additions to the Expert stable in recent weeks, with some quality opinions and insights coming in on a number of sports now from current players, former greats, and respected writers from around the world.
One of those recent additions, who I’ve been really excited to share space on the rugby tab with, is London-based writer, and Fairfax Press’ RugbyHeaven contributor, Paul Cully, who many of you will know from last year’s Rugby World Cup musings.
It was on RugbyHeaven last Friday, that Paul put up an observation that completely changed the way I would watch the past weekend’s Super Rugby action.
Writing about how the Waratahs could do Robbie Deans a massive favour by forcing the Rebels to switch James O’Connor to flyhalf, should Danny Cipriani fail to fire, Paul described the current crop of Australian conference flyhalves as thus:
“An experienced tactical operator unlikely to make the next step up, a promising youngster still finding his feet under a new coach and game plan, a converted halfback, a Kiwi seeking work opportunities after being unwanted by Pat Lam in Auckland, and the lone Test representative of the five – an exiled Englishman.”
It was as accurate a description as it was crushingly gloomy.
With Paul’s descriptions still fresh, I was determined to watch ‘our’ no.10s more closely. In fact, it went further than that; without even realising it, I had watched the whole Chiefs-Blues game having intently focused of their ‘first fives’ almost exclusively as well.
And frankly, it was depressing.
How is it that these young punk fly-halves in New Zealand, running around in their formative seasons of Super Rugby, can turn in performances with a skill-level and degree of calmness and maturity that the current crop of Australian tens could only dream of?
Why are the young no.10s in both the other conferences able to play with freedom to attack as required (and with the nous to know when to), when ‘play what’s in front of you’ remains an object of ironic mockery in Australia?
Now yes, Quade Cooper and Berrick Barnes are out of action, obviously, and their presence would change the observations about the current group.
Cooper has a couple of coaches now that wouldn’t dare shackle him, and aren’t likely to anytime soon. But he’s pretty much on his own in this department.
Barnes is probably the smartest, most tactically aware no.10 in Australia, and when he’s at the top of his game – as he was during the RWC and on the Spring Tour – he runs and kicks effectively with a vision that’s unrivalled in Australia.
But why isn’t this the case when he plays fly-half for New South Wales? Why does a Waratahs jersey bring with it a kick-first-think-later game plan? Barnes has proved time and again for club and country that he knows when to and not to kick, so why don’t the ‘Tahs just let him play?
It’s probably even worse for young Matt Toomua at the Brumbies.
Toomua came to the Brumbies straight out of school as a super-talented, destined-for-further-honours running fly-half, but I can’t honestly think of the last time it was obvious that running was his first thought for the Brumbies. Instead, what we see is this confusing and not at all well-executed medley of fluffed midfield bombs.
Mike Harris is doing well for the Reds currently by not trying to be Cooper. His is a simple game plan: straighten the attack, feed the centres with width, inside ball to Digby Ioane whenever he wants it. Black-dotting every kick he lines up is helping, too.
Daniel Halangahu, the “experienced tactical operator unlikely to make the next step up”, is probably the model example of why Australia needs another layer of rugby between the club and Super versions.
Clearly a class above when playing for Sydney University, Halangahu has never really looked totally comfortable steering his state team around. It will be interesting to see what happens when Barnes returns, and with former sevens star Bernard Foley also hitting his straps.
Speaking of former sevens stars, I actually feel sorry for James Stannard at the Western Force.
The Force obviously heeded the criticisms from week one, and ditched the one-off runners from Stannard in midfield, preferring a game of width and using their numbers against the Reds.
Which would’ve been a great idea had they also added depth to their backline when set. Instead, by the time the ball reached new hands, those hands were already heading sideways. And no-one’s going to run around Queensland at the moment. What works in sevens doesn’t always convert to ‘fifteens’.
I think the Rebels are falling into the same trap with Cipriani and O’Connor. O’Connor is giving Cipriani plenty of room, and generally will find his way to where the gap is or might be, but against the Waratahs, they were both guilty of running their outside supports out of room by playing too laterally.
O’Connor not being the most naturally straight runner might cause this, but Cipriani could also straighten himself up and drag the line with him.
When you watch the likes of Cruden, Hobbs, Bleyendaal, and Barrett over the ditch, and even Jantjies and Lambie over in the Republic, you firstly wonder where our own young punks are, but secondly you can’t help but wonder why the tens we do have don’t seem to have the same freedom to run.
Having watched a fair chunk of the Six Nations this year, I’ve had similar thoughts watching Sexton, Priestland, and Farrell. When an English flyhalf runs more than Australians appear to, you know all is not well.
So what’s holding our no.10s back?
Is it simply a lack of talent, as our Kiwi cousins have been all-too-happy to point out? Or are the coaches in Australia just not game to unshackle their talented playmakers and backs, as has been suggested in numerous articles since the start of the season, for fear of career-stunting failure?
Conservatism has its place in rugby; don’t get me wrong (the Bulls won championships, after all). But paranoid (and selfish) fear of failure does not. Wherever they’re watching from, people want to see well-executed skills and quality in attack.
They don’t want shackles; they want to see instinctive players chancing their hands.
These players already exist in Australia, so why aren’t we seeing what they can really do? Drop the shackles, coaches; the only thing worse than trying something and coming up short is not trying anything and getting the same result.
Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-first-grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009, Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport