Flyhalf play is based primarily on judgement. As he receives the ball, the pivot has to make a swift decision, one of three options: pass, kick, or keep it. In order to deliver a decision advantageous to his team, he must possess all the skills necessary. Top of these is the ability to ‘control the match’, provided his forwards are reasonably dominant. Flyhalves battle behind ‘losing packs’.
He needs ‘good hands’ i.e. he must take every ball passed to his waist or down to his ankles; those passed above the waist are difficult, take his eye off the opposition and slow down the whole process of gaining ground and retaining possession of the ball; he must be able to kick equally well with either foot, touchkicks, grubbers, chips, up-and-unders, drops and kick-offs; he should know how to pass quickly and accurately – ‘don’t spin it, just pass the bloody thing!’ - for the centre to run on to with confidence. (Passes ‘to the right’ remain in all games far too misdirected. I know of no coach with the possible exception of those who coach the top New Zealand sides and the Lions, who pay any attention to this.)
With regard to kicking skills, the complete flyhalf must know how to kick to touch, give the dummy before executing the grubber through the gap – this done at speed and the ball to go no farther than ten metres so possession is retained, practise the chip to perfection so that retention is certain, use the diagonal or crosskick or kick-pass, as commentators refer to it today – off either foot. Jantjies, Barrett and Foley are masters of this tactic. There is ample evidence of constant practice.
I am appalled by the absence from present day line-kicking of the ‘torpedo’ or ‘screw’ kick. Every flyhalf in the Super 18 competition kicks the ball ‘end over end’. Where did this nonsense come from? The ‘torpedo’, which curves on and in towards the touchline gains at least ten metres more. Another gripe is about kickers kicking with the ‘outside’ foot to touch. Hopeless! Get a right-foot for the left touchline and a left foot for the right. Elementary, my dear Johan Ackerman and other coaches!
The modern flyhalf must also be able to play his part on defence; his tackling has to be sound. With the modern game being so ‘collision-orientated’, it helps if the flyhalf is strong. Henry Honiball comes to mind. But Jantjies, who is not big, is stronger than he looks. He defends well. Barrett of the Hurricanes, appears to have most of these skills, but he still turns his body towards his centre as he passes, so the opposition are across the field that much quicker. He doesn’t appear to have heard of the ‘swing pass’, given off the inside hip to hold the defence for a critical moment.
Of the current South African flyhalves I would rate them as follows out of 10:
Jantjies of the Lions 7;
Cronje of the Kings 7;
April of the Sharks 5;
Schoeman of the Bulls 6;
du Preez of the Stormers 6;
du Plessis of the Stormers 4.
The criteria I have considered in making this judgement is based on the skills referred to above, especially ‘controlling the match’ and using excellent decision-making.
Flyhalves carry an enormous responsibility. The pack has done its job to provide the ball; now correct decisions must be made with expertise. (As for scrumhalves, who, since John Robbie and Fourie du Preez, think they must dictate play, they engage in largely fruitless displays of the box-kick. This overused tactic more often than not gives away possession. It is a modern curse!)
In my career I played against some very fine flyhalves. I would rate them out of 10 thus:
Keith Oxlee of Natal and the Boks 8+;
Richard Sharp of England and the British Lions 7;
Phil Hawthorne of Australia: 7;
Mike Lawless of Western Province and the Boks 4;
Charlie Nimb of Western Province and South Africa 5;
Norman Riley of Eastern Transvaal and South Africa 6;
Jannie Barnard of Transvaal and the Boks 5;
Faan Conradie of South-Western Districts and the Boks 4.
(Where would I rate myself after a career over twelve years for Rhodesia, with three internationals against the British Lions, Australia and Argentina? I captained the national side for five seasons. For my club, Fort Victoria, I’d give myself 7; for Midlands, one of the four internal provinces in Rhodesia perhaps 8! Well, I did play a role in our team winning four out of seven tournaments in the ‘sixties – those Midlands team-mates of mine I would rate 8+. For Rhodesia I’d have to settle for 5+; my performances were too uneven to raise the mark, much as I’d like to. Against Transvaal in 1969 I played to a 9; against Natal in 1966 I was a 4. So it goes.)
I hope you’ll forgive that little exercise of self-examination; it’s not meant to be egotistical, just subjective reminiscence. I love the game and the challenges of flyhalf play. As rector of Michaelhouse I played twice for Old Crocks, aged 41 and 46, with Tommy Bedford as captain against the First XV. The boys had a real go at me but I distributed very quickly on those occasions.
Next week I’ll select my Bok team for the first test against France. Warren Whiteley is already there as captain, a fine choice.