The 10 jersey is an enigma in the modern game. The allure of having a top class 10 to guide a team into a World Cup has been the tell-tale for each and every successful team.
As we saw with Wales vs South Africa in the 2019 World Cup, the semi final was a battle of 10s, through wide passing movements, big bombs to shift the momentum, and clutch moments from the boot. The two Cup 10s in Handre Pollard and Dan Biggar are still alive and kicking, and will be key to both sides clearing the group stage and making the knockouts.
You’ve never seen any team win a World Cup without a class 10, and even in 2011 the difference between group stage and final was indicative of the gap in flyhalf quality.
Thus, the flyhalf serves as the difference maker, constantly calibrating the control panel of kick long/kick short, run, pass short, pass mid, pass long. Thus, to better understand the breakdown of the world’s best pivots, the dichotomy of driving, floating, and strategising will be used.
They are 10s that suit a 3-2 midfield split, as their narrow frame to take isolated balls, as well as passing precision to make sharp passes through narrow windows are crucial to running an effective hit up with thinner corps. The direct carrying threat is important combined with short and mid range passing to break a team down up front.
These direct role sets are coupled with a confident kicking game and the calm to steer a team around the park. Defensively, all 4 of the following almost never shirk the physical aspect, making big hits at key moments.
He heads into the swansong of his career as a masterpiece. The sliding pivot takes multiple touches, using durability and short passing to shift the ball. His abilities off the tee, with the boot, as well as with the ball; are crucial to propelling Ireland to a World Cup.
His stylistic clone Ross Byrne is still settling in, but Sexton’s consistent option taking and intricate loop plays and stacked options can overwhelm the best of defenses. If he can keep healthy and stay out of trouble, Ireland are likely to go through to the quarters.
Pollard has evolved from running/kicking tactician with a long range passing game, to all round distributor who organises every single phase, play-calling off the ball and controlling the tempo of a game. The Boks have several buttons – Kick chase, wide balls to Lukhanyo Am, Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi, and brutal crash balls off 9, all hinging on the 10s choices.
You can see him communicating between phases, and his ability to change the shape and double up to better positions characterises his importance to the Springboks.
Leicester Tigers have been heavily boosted this season by his presence, off the tee, on and off ball, in kicking game, but most importantly in his phase play precision. His physical frame means he has the durability on the line, and his break and pass skills means he can execute a floating flyhalf role in a 1-3-3-1.
His application of his skillset – excellent passing from short to long ranges, blending attacking kicks with kick tennis, has seen him become perhaps the form flyhalf of the Premiership up until he was hit with injury.
While his viability for the World Cup is a massive question mark, he will be the man to turn the tide in a knockout, perhaps better than any other 10, be it through skill, long range penalties, or quietly guiding the tempo.
The Springboks have lacked the assurance in their play this year, and without an in-form Pollard, their first pool exit to World Cup dark horses Scotland and inside laners Ireland is very possible.
The weathered soldier has risen from the trenches, making the sniper shots and becoming a master of guiding an attack, threatening the line directly and marshalling the troops with a touch of class. His degrading carrying/breaking threat has seen him amplify his ever-present passing and kicking game, and he still has the durability in contact to make offloads and punch up to lead by example.
The incoherent Welsh attack shifted to a picture of masterful dynamism with his introduction against England off the bench. Much like Handre Pollard, he fits the 3-2-X attack, and if his kicking game and tactical management can hold, Wales could top the group.
His shift to Toulon has seemed to reignite his career with a dynamic blend of attacking and kicking. If he can combine this with traditional strengths like garryowens and bombs, he could become the Welsh Wilkinson and carry a nation on his back through the World Cup semis, especially on the easier side of the draw.
Pollard gets the nod over Biggar only by better breaking ability.
His career has been hindered by a forced evolution into an inside centre. Despite excellent form for the Sarries, it is hard to rank him higher when it is unclear what kind of role Steve Borthwick holds for him. He spent the Six Nations doing damage control for Marcus Smith, and while his direct running and flat passing looked very impressive, one aspect of playmaking cannot be taken to be comprehensive for a 10’s role.
His kicking game may just tip the balance in key moments, but his lack of phase play development, often opting to just prime himself from a killer pass in an edge-to-edge sequence, is perhaps his weakness. He tackles like he’s bet his house on the game, and rightly so.
He could be the best flat passer in the game and that trademark Farrell ball when deployed as a creative cannon managed by George Ford, could see him realise his true potential.
Ford/Farrell have the herculean task of hauling England out of the mire. They could be found lacking and see them crash out to Japan/Samoa. Yet, getting out of the group or even topping the group against a resurgent Wales and the Pacific wild cards make them figureheads steering the ship in troubled waters.
These players suit a 3-3-X attacking system. This allows their agile breaking ability to widen passing windows and arc through gaps off pod pullbacks. This personifies the idea of a striker at 10. The drawback is that these players often need to have play off 9 so they can get into spacey positions.
Mo’unga has become a bit of a manager, running the shape and giving Beaudy the space to run the ball. His ability to step and pace to burst through are primed to take advantage of a space in a fluid evolving shape the All Blacks are using.
His brilliant breaking ability has to be further explored, and his pace will be crucial in playing a kick-heavy strategy the All Blacks are currently experimenting with. He works as an attacking 10 to play a running game paired with kicking and passing functional to work as a front cutter.
He is less of a general and more of a magician, much similar to Finn Russell. A young Finn who has been sanded off with an all round game on both sides of the ball. However, he is definitely more than a maverick, capable of floating deep and wide and making plays in wider areas. His delayed decision making is a double-edged sword. It can put runners through holes, open up stepping spaces. However, it is his lack of squaring when running a flat cutter that costs him the Bok spot. Overall, he still remains a conundrum.
Is he a better fullback than Wille Le Roux, because his lack of organisation is compensated by superior X factor? Or is he the crucial impact player? Can he cover outside centre and wing to an elite level? The URC MVP was the cornerstone of the Stormers’ excellent run, but his struggles in the final emphasise his weakness in the pressure cooker.
He turns out much like his namesake, the great DC. Composed decision making, darting footwork, and a superb kicking game-an arsenal of attacking kicks and a big boot to win the game of kick tennis. 6 foot two, he possesses a good frame to burst through defenses.
He can mature into an elite driving flyhalf with sophisticated tampering, but the amazing footwork in open play as well as the excellent operations of a 3-pod through mid range passing have been very impressive. Defensively, he has textbook technique, which means in terms of skillset his rough edges are well sanded out for him to develop into the perfect 10. He could rise as high as top 5 in this list, depending on his progression and form in knockouts.
Wearing 15 but he is essentially playing the trequartista role. Mo’unga runs the shape, where Barrett can give the key play in big moments through crosskicks, class passes, and a solid kicking game. He’s never one to shy away from the pressure cooker, and his collected brilliance will be crucial in slicing open SA/Scotland/Ireland in a quarter final. He has excellent baller ability, and while his running threat has degraded, has sufficient agility to worry a wide defense. Would be higher up the hierarchy as a creative strike running fullback.
These are the type of players that astutely apply their buffed passing and kicking skillsets in a floating flyhalf structure. They are masters of attacking construction, and their patient chess moves are key in marching a side forwards.
The mercurial magician never forgets that rugby is just a game, and unlike other players who craft attacks with a strict plan in mind with Plan B and Plan C, Russell simply innovates. His footwork and gliding runs draw defenders; whilst his casual demeanour sees him aptly respond to changes in the defensive line.
Clutch? BIL 3, Calcutta Cup, his master unpicking of Wales, and the comeback from a horrid first half to a peerless second 40 in France. His nonchalance is his strength – he never, ever goes into his shell.
The 1-3-3-1 attacking system sees the Scots array their second pod in a wide shape, using their 10 to give a snappy pass to hit the hinge spots of the defense. His ability to mix management with magic is unparalleled. Sidestepping, offloading, passing are combined in a perfect balance, and are the qualities that Scotland are built around.
He holds the keys to deciding Pool B. He could undress the Bok defence with cross kicks or double pump ‘through balls’, and a Cooper-esque shifting of the point of focus can wear down the Irish defence, using a strike play involving either one of their centers or a wide play to Kinghorn to finish off with ruthless efficiency.
It is a shame to see him fall down the pecking order. He could have been the best tactician of the past 2 years, displaying extremely good form. Injury and bad luck cost him his ability to cement his greatness. He remains one of the best Wallaby flyhalves to ever step on the field and his skills in arranging attacks, picking accurate decisions, as well as providing individual magic have not completely diminished.
The depth and order he plays with was instrumental for the Wallabies in 2021 and saw their peak form. Despite being second fiddle, he has the potential to become the core of their success in multiple ways coming off the bench and off the field:
His sidestepping was on show in 2022, and lit the field alight against Argentina in 2022’s Rugby Championship. He hasn’t had the best time in 2023 but if he can bring the 21/22 form whilst dovetailing at fullback or coming off the bench, Australia can be in the running for Webb Ellis to come home after 20 long years.
The epitome of this style of play. Finn Russell went from floating flash playmaker and stepping strike to skill-wielding maestro that effervescently ran an attacking sequence. But it was Ford’s ability to array an attacking sequence, to time the ability of when to call the ball to himself that always stood out. He was the MVP for Sale Sharks, getting them to their first final in a while.
A combo with Farrell will be a game changer, as he can set the shape and allow Farrell to use his skills in making a killer pass. Ford is not a support pivot, but rather an unsung hero of all his successful teams. He has an excellent ability in passing and kicking, and his mastery of the spiral bomb will be a crucial factor in playing kick pressure or contact-shifting phase play.
One may argue that Sigma stage Garbisi ranks over Alpha program George Ford in terms of being a floating strategist. Always able to call the right attacking shapes and arrays intricate pod formations, linking through with classy passing and kicking. One may argue he could rank as high as top 5, but a lack of composure and patience sees him fall down at the top level.
The overall ranking system is not so much of an accurate depiction of the flyhalf hierarchies but for the sake of good fun, let’s pull a mash up of the above:
Romain Ntamack does not fit into a conventional model of a 10, as he functions as more of a distributing ‘third midfielder’, as quoted by Squidge. Where Gael Fickou and Jonathan Danty work as flankers/strike runners; Romain Ntamack works as a second five, whilst Antoine Dupont functions as a dual-role player functioning as a 10 off the base off the ruck when targets have to be hit with precision, and a 9 on default play.
Conclusively, driving 10s, floating 10s, and floating strategists each represent a different path to gold. The question is which way prevails: precise power, creative agility, or chess-like demolition?