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The battle for Australia's No.9 jersey

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21st April, 2019
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In a World Cup year, the battle for spots is immense. And one of the most heavily contested positions in the squad is at scrum half.

Australia’s depth has been in question since the 2015 Rugby World Cup. With players leaving to play in Europe and Japan, Michael Cheika and his men have often been scrounging the depths of Australian rugby to find a diamond among the rocks. This year may be different.

The Super Rugby competition has been an open one this season. More teams are winning away for home and placings in each conference are compressed.

The competition for the two available scrum half spots for the Wallabies is hot.

It is fair to say that one of the scrum half spots is already taken. That is owned by Will Genia. He is an amazing all-round scrum half who can attack, defend and kick exceptionally well and that is without mentioning his passing and game awareness.

But there is one vacant spot. A spot being contested by four.

The four contenders for the other scrum half position are Jake Gordon and Waratahs teammate Nick Phipps as well as Joe Powell and exciting youngster Tate McDermott.

By looking at each player’s statistics for the Super Rugby season, you can begin to group each player into their own category.

Let’s start up north with Tate McDermott. The Sunshine Coast product was initially the understudy to Moses Sorovi this season before Thorn gave him a starting opportunity and McDermott has not looked back since.

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He has scored four tries this season and has gained 221 metres from 26 runs. His line-breaks and tackle busts add up to six and 17 respectively.

He leads his counteparts (except Genia) in all of those attacking facets except kicking where he has made just 11 for 385 metres.

His kicking has certainly improved from the start of the season but this is where we begin to see his personal characteristics.

McDermott is a running half. He wants to attack the line and is not afraid to have a scoot from the back of a scrum or ruck. An exciting prospect that presents the future of Queensland rugby.

Tate McDermott

(Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images)

Taking a trip south and we land in Sydney where Jake Gordon and Nick Phipps reside. Phipps has played just the five games this season but the 61 Test Wallaby is no stranger to the national setup and is well-liked by Michael Cheika.

Despite playing just the five games, his stats can be analysed and it is fair to say that his style is much more different to McDermott’s. His stats are very similar to the Brumbies’ Joe Powell but we will get to that later.

Phipps has made six runs for just over 50 metres with just two tackle busts. Despite having played four games less than McDermott, he has made five more kicks than the Queenslander.

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With 27 tackles to his name, Phipps shows that he is a traditional workhorse No.9 who relies on his kicking and passing (most of the time) to benefit the team.

His Waratahs teammate Jake Gordon is an interesting case. Gordon sits between McDermott and Phipps in his style of play.

His stats suggest that he is neither as attacking as McDermott nor traditional as Phipps. He sits between the two in terms of runs and run metres as well as tackle busts.

He has made 15 more kicks than Phipps for 861 metres. His tackle numbers are the same as Phipps, just four behind McDermott’s 31 and he also has a try to his name.

The comparison between Gordon’s stats and Phipps’ and McDermott’s place him in the middle of the two. You could say he has been more balanced between attacking and kicking.

The final competitor is Brumbies scrum half, Joe Powell. The 25-year-old has three Test caps to his name and plays an instrumental part in the way the Brumbies function.

Joe Powell Brumbies Super Rugby Union 2017

(AAP Image/SNPA, Ross Setford)

As I said earlier, Powell’s stats are very similar to those of Nick Phipps. Has played nine games to Phipps’ five, so nearly double.

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Powell’s runs are exactly double Phipps’ six and Powell has made just the single line break whereas Phipps has none.

Powell has just more than double Phipps’ tackle busts which sit at five as well as Powell’s 33 kicks to Phipps’ 16.

The one facet of the game where Powell does distance himself from this pattern is tackles where he has a stunning 61 to Phipps’ 27.

As you can see though, when considering that Phipps’ has played just over half the games Powell has played, the statistics are amazingly similar.

These similarities also place Powell in Phipps’ style of scrum half.

Will Genia dominates in most categories where he has the most runs, run metres, line-breaks, kicks and kick metres. It is fair to say that Genia is easily the best scrum half in Australia at the moment.

So, what does the decision come down to? The decision comes down to the balance of the squad that Michael Cheika deems to be appropriate in Australia’s World Cup plans, ambitions and hopes.

Knowing Genia is the all-round package, who is the reserve scrum half? Do you go for an attacking weapon who loves to run the ball? A player like the Reds’ Tate McDermott?

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Do you settle for a kicking and territorial scrum half such as Phipps’ and Powell who will consistently turn out solid performances?

Or do you split the two styles and go for a Jake Gordon who has balls in both courts?

Whatever the decision is, there will be speculation, controversy and mixed feelings. But that is the beauty of – finally! – having some depth in Australian rugby.