The Lions tour is one of the biggest highlights of the rugby calendar. Primed to occur in South Africa in 2021, the British and Irish Lions will take on the world champion Springboks.
The No. 10 jersey is a key part to any team and was crucial to their previous draw with New Zealand. If they are to shine against South Africa in 2021, they will need an excellent No. 10.
Ultimate Rugby listed six contenders to play the badger: Welshmen Dan Biggar and Gareth Anscombe, Englishmen George Ford and Owen Farrell, Irishman Johnny Sexton and Scotish maverick Finn Russell.
To dissect who should really take the No. 10 jersey the aspects of a flyhalf game will be split into several sections: tactical kicking, passing, defence and overall tactical ability, which is one’s ability to control the game.
One extra factor will be goal kicking, but an extra goal kicker can be brought in in the form of Elliot Daly or Stuart Hogg, both of whom are long-range goal kickers.
However, before I get to the evaluation of the players in all the aspects, I must first point out one key factor that drives all rugby performances: temperament. If you melt under pressure, you lose your cool and your rugby goes backwards.
Dan Biggar has ice-cool nerves, and his ability to kick pressure penalties and be that iceman for his team has served both club and country well. However, he had one game of complaining against France in the Six Nations and lost his cool with the referee, and his short fuse with all referees is his Achilles heel. However, he was tactically excellent that game.
Farrell has some nerveless composure and he is a fierce competitor, but when his tempers flare he will get thuggish.
George Ford is cool, analytical and structured. His distribution is always solid.
Finn Russell is extremely good in dealing with rush defences and he can pool mad things under pressure.
Gareth Anscombe has not played recently, but he was calm and collected in his execution through the 2019 Six Nations.
Johnny Sexton is one curious case. When his pack is rolling he can call good plays. However, when his team makes an error, he makes his frustration evident and throws his hands up or screams. This is not the kind of direction and demeanour you want from a No. 10. Also, when under pressure, he has a tendency to melt down. Due to his temperamental problems, I would exclude him from this evaluation as any untemperamental flyhalf will cost his team.
To further narrow down the evaluation, let us close it down to current starters for their country who would be realistic options for the Lions. This would be Ford, Farrell, Biggar, Russell.
In terms of tactical kicking, all are very excellent.
However, perhaps none is better than Welsh pivot Dan Biggar – high, far, well weighted and with a realistic opportunity to chase. His crosskick is without a doubt the best in the world and his creativity from the boot can see many tries and open opportunities. If not, they still pose a threat to the most organised defences.
Goerge Ford and Farrell have become infamously good at territorial kicks – low and aiming for a bounce. These grubber kicks open the defence on many occasions and get the ball downfield.
Finn Russell has a great chip and chase and kick pass with his unlocking touch.
When it comes to passing, it is a headache to select the best.
Farrell, when in form, has sometimes done the flat bullet pass to England’s designated killer, Elliot Daly, to put the wing in untouched. He’s sometimes capable of doing the so-called ‘Farrell pass’ to unlock defences. However, consistency is one factor that goes right against him. When his fitness goes down, when he is frustrated, his passes go haywire. He is a superb passer, but he is not as consistent as the others that I’ve listed, though his consistency is pretty good in and of itself.
Meanwhile, Ford has great passing and passes intelligently and consistently.
However, when it comes to combining spectacular and solidity, Dan Biggar is the man. He has been passing beautiful flat balls in this year’s Six Nations. His skill set has also expanded. He can swing a wide pass either flat or over the top. He is totally capable of delivering a super-ambitious unlocking pass. One prominent example would be his insane through-the-legs pass to Josh Adams to finish in the corner.
That said, when it comes to passing the person who perhaps deserves the most ink is Finn Russell. He has the over-the-top and flat pass. His passing is mercurial. The way he envisages the game allows him to find the gaps and execute his moves with phenomenal passes that fly over the top, and his gap-finding is matched by few on the world stage. He can lay claim to being the world’s best No. 10. He can cross the field in one pass, and this has been extremely effective for Racing 92.
To come to one factor that disadvantages of most flyhalves, defence. A flyhalf has to defend the No. 10 channel. He has to hold his ground in the tackle and has to be determined and dogged. He has to fight like a lion in defence to deserve to play for the Lions.
Dan Biggar is perhaps next to Handre Pollard in terms of defensive ability, being the next best defensive No. 10 on the planet. He is physically aggressive in the tackle. He can go high and turn the physicality button right up. He fought like a lion against the Springboks, though he got run over a couple of times. He also has the courage to put his body on the line – for example, his try-saver on Marike Koroibete dislodging the ball saw him concussed.
Owen Farrell is a decently solid. However, the pantomime villain flirts with legality and his controversial no-arms tactics are purely dirty. He hardly puts his body on the line (legally) to stop a try. Also, when he does use his arms, he can get bumped off or get sidestepped like Cheslin Kolbe did in the World Cup final.
George Ford is decent but not very notable.
Finn Russell is a solid defender, and his defensive record of 86 per cent in 2020 for Racing 92 certainly speaks for something. His hold tackles – clutch the legs and stop the attacker from bursting through – allow him to make up against big attackers who try to bump you off. This tactic, though less credited, is safer than how Biggar and Farrell are trying to defend.
Onto overall tactical ability, and this is where a player uses his skill set and makes key decisions to the team’s benefit.
Dan Biggar is clearly a solid decision-maker. Recently, with no platform to play on when he starts for Wales, he has been limited. However, he has the all-round skill set as an attacking flyhalf. He runs scissor switches and loops, injecting runners in and reclaiming the ball and sending it wide.
George Ford is a natural No. 10, and his solid passing and tactical kicking play, dictated by a No. 10’s rugby IQ, is crucial to England in attack and kicking the clearances. His ability to visualise the backline makes him the only outhalf in the English team who plays structured rugby instead of grubbering the ball to force errors.
Dan Biggar has got a robust running and passing game. He has finally polished that under Stephen Jones at Wales and Chris Boyd at Northampton. Offloads, long passes, flat passes – he has been executing the whole bag. He has evolved into an excellent playmaker. He is throwing beautiful flat passes and running switches. His ability to select inside runners and offload the ball is also extremely good and is a key aspect of his skill set Wales are playing off. He has combined that with his up-and-unders, making him a dual-threat.
Here is an example: he takes Romain Ntamack’s kickoff, running a good line and launching up one of his own up-and-unders, reclaiming the ball in the air and slinging a perfect pass to release Hadleigh Parkes.
Finn Russell has a wide skillset in attack. Among the contenders here he has the widest skill set – the kick pass, Russell passes, chips and bombs. However, he may not be as good at commanding the game behind an unhelpful pack. in his position it is certainly not his fault that his teammates act erroneously if space is not there. His passes are good for distributing but cannot control the game as well as he would hope. I would rate him as decent in controlling the tempo and driving the team as he is a key aspect of Scotland, but Biggar is better than him in this aspect.
However, Russell has one missile in his arsenal that can break the South African defence. Their wingers like to shoot into the 12 channel once the ball goes there. Russell may just throw a Russell pass and free the space. It is the perfect counter to the ‘impregnable’ defence.
I understand if English fans accuse me of bias but I have to say this: Owen Farrell is not the tactician that Biggar or Russell is. While his flashy attacking play is not shabby at all and his passes and kicks can be intelligent, I would accuse him of being territorial instead of tactical. While he may seem to so-called control a game behind a struggling pack, he is just grubber-kicking away the ball to force errors or a bounce into touch, merely clearing the pressure of possession.
So, to conclude, if the Lions are to take three flyhalves to South Africa, I would have them as Dan Biggar, Finn Russell and George Ford. Speaking of starting, there is some tactical consideration.
Method 1: Nos. 10 to 12
They could take either Biggar or Ford at No. 10 and Finn Russell at No. 12 for more playmaking. Ford would be better suited to playing in a No. 10 or No. 12 axis as he does for England. However, Biggar has a better skill set and in theory would do the solid work while Russell does the spectacular. Biggar could act as a balance, as we need dependability with Finn Russell’s high-risk creativity.
Method 2: traditionalism
Being traditional means they could just start as normal by fielding one flyhalf.
For me, the two better flyhalves would be Biggar and Russell, and both have their individual strengths. Both are strong in solid and spectacular, but Biggar is more solid and Russell more spectacular. The question is whether solid or spectacular suits the Lions better.