Posted: 21.11.20 at 21:16 by Ralph Henderson
As this week's announcement of the imminence of a Covid vaccination brings hope of a return to normality for sport, Thurrock Nub News contributor Ralph Henderson continues his series of articles ,keeping the spotlight on rugby.
"It can only be ensured by instinct, sharpened by thought, practising the stroke so often that, at the crisis it is as natural as a reflex" - T. E. Lawrence, "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom "
JACQUES Fouroux was a legendary French scrum- half and Coach. He captained France when they won the Grand Slam in 1977 and was the manager when they twice repeated the feat in the eighties.
Fouroux, who sadly passed away in 2005 while only in his fifties, played much of his rugby for his home town of Auch and was first capped in 1972, although not a regular for the next four years as he was replaced by the less flamboyant Richard Astre of the more salubrious Beziers!
Jacques Fouroux, at only 5ft.3ins tall was one of the smallest players ever to play International rugby.
His size, combined with his combative, supremely confident and all-action leadership style encouraged comparisons with Napoleon Bonaparte; Bonaparte's nickname, "the little corporal' stayed with Fouroux throughout his career as he demonstrated the same arrogance and tenacity of the great French Emperor.
Fouroux was never happier than when at the heart of the battle and when the going was toughest. Short, nuggety and dynamic, he was often described as "the ninth forward."
When he captained his country to the Grand Slam in 1977, his resilience was an example to the whole team and,remarkably, the same 15 players played every single minute of every game! The only tight game was the 4-3 win against England at a time when a try was worth four points.
[H2 "You become strong by defying defeat and by turning loss and failure into success."- Napoleon Bonaparte
If there are any benefits to be gained from this dreadful pandemic, they have to lie within the realms of the brilliance of medical research and the strength of human resolve.
In spite of an increase in the divorce rate in some areas it seems that there has been a much greater reliance on family values and even a return to old-fashioned discussions around the dinner table!
During breakfast the other morning, my son, a young developing scrum-half, was extolling the virtues of the South African genius and star of the 2019 World Cup, Faf de Klerk. He suggested that he was "the greatest scrum-half of all time!" Now this comment was always going to be "A red rag to a bull" to somebody who had been at Cardiff College of Education at the same time as Sir Gareth Edwards. Gareth Edwards was voted "the greatest rugby player of all time" let alone scrum-half.
I know de Klerk is a brilliant player and dominated the World Cup as well as playing a vital role in Sale's revival, but is he really greater than the greatest? It was certainly worth the debate!
I am often reminded by Clive Beynon and John Mullen that during our years at Cardiff there were often nine or ten top quality scrum-halves all vying for one slot. Scrum-half is such a specialist position with unique skills, it is a little like the goalkeeper in football.
There is only one and so it is difficult to get into the team; you have to be the best!
That is why at Cardiff in the late sixties a plethora of talented players performed their roles in other top class teams: Clive Shell, later capped by Wales played for Aberavon; Welsh triallist, Martin Davies, fought for the Neath No.9 shirt with the diminutive Dai Parker; Lyndsey Lewis was the "great understudy", at Abertillery for British Lion Allan Lewis and at Cardiff for the immortal Gareth Edwards. Gary Samuel had performed a similar task for Cardiff, while England schools international, John Cannon, travelled back to Clifton.
Stuart Smith was a sharp, passing player at Penygraig and Selwyn Williams, another Welsh reserve, was a magnificent servant of Llanelli. Ellis Wyn Williams probably played as many college games as anybody else and the former Welsh secondary schools cap went on to become part of the legendary London Welsh team of the seventies that produced seven British Lions!
Wynne Jones was a Championship winner with Bridgend; Roger ‘Clint’ Morris bluffed his way into the Glamorgan Wanderers side, and the following year, Gethin Edwards (Gareth's brother) joined Cardiff and Bob Dyer Swansea. Malcolm Bogey was a tough northerner, who ,like so many quality players, had to trade his skills elsewhere.
This continued over the following years with another Welsh Lion, Brynmor Williams, (father of current Welsh international, Lloyd) keeping Thurrock's John Mahoney out of the team. Martin Eyles, the scrum-half in Thurrock's victory over London Irish was another Cardiff product, though Steve Bowen played for rivals, Caerleon.
The number nine is revered in the Indian sub-continent and considered to be divine because it represents the end of a cycle in the decimal system which originated in Hindu society as early as 3,000 BC!
Nine is a significant number in Norse mythology. Nine is powerful in Chinese culture because phonetically it means long-lasting. Nine is strongly associated with the Chinese dragon, symbolising magic and power. Kowloon, in Hong Kong, means nine dragons!
There is little doubt that many of these characteristics can be applied to the nine in rugby. (although until the sixties, the scrum-half wore the number seven, which had a closer relationship with luck).
They are often powerful, sinewy individuals who usually have longevity. This was evidenced recently when Ben Youngs won his 100th cap against Italy and Danny Care has won 84 caps during the same period. Mike Phillips won 99 caps for Wales and the Lions, surpassing the record of contemporary, Dwayne Peel who gained 76.
The incredible Wallaby, George Gregan played 139 times for Australia, while successor, Will Genia is also a centurion. Italian ,Alessandro Troncon gained 101 caps, while compatriot Mauro Bergamasco played in 106 Tests, including one as an emergency scrum-half, which was catastrophic, demonstrating the uniqueness and complexity of this position.
One of the greatest was Joost Van Der Westhuizen, who played a total of 111 games for South Africa, including 89 Tests. He was the first South African to appear in three World Cups before his tragic death in 2017.
It must be remembered that most of the highest capped players come from the professional era where far more games are played annually and fitness levels are incomparable. Also it should be noted that the replacement of injured players was not allowed before 1968/69 (The British Lions played most of the last Test against New Zealand in 1966,when Abertillery and Wales captain Alun Pask retired with a severe shoulder injury early in the game).
Irish great Mike Gibson was the first official replacement when he came on for Barry John against New Zealand in 1966. Who can ever forget that epic moment in March 1972 when Derek Quinnell was forced to barge his way through a police cordon to get his first Welsh cap?
Wales were playing France at the old National Stadium and in the dying embers of the game, Mervyn Davies was forced off the field with a back injury. In spite of already winning a Lions' cap, Quinnell had found playing for his beloved Wales elusive. Having been given the go ahead there was still the matter of getting on to the field before the final whistle. What followed was an epic scene of great drama as the pride of Llanelli forced his way through a host of people, including a couple of hefty police officers, to charge on to the pitch leaving the legendary Bill McClaren to comment: "That's one of the great moments of this international championship campaign!"
Similarly, the great Welsh winger, J.J. Williams, who sadly passed away last month, won his first cap as a late replacement for Arthur Lewis in 1973 against France. Ian Lewis and Roger Lane, his contemporaries at Cardiff College were not quite so lucky, unused replacements on at least five occasions.
One theory to explain the protracted careers of scrum-halves is that they often have a low-centre of gravity and make tackles on their own terms before the larger players have time to get into full power and hence the laws of physics concerning "moments about a force " are less damaging. Another is that the Nine is as "fit as a butcher's dog" as he has to be the first to every breakdown and runs more metres than any other player.
The canine analogy I would prefer to make is with my Border Terrier called "RIOT"!
The scrum-half is the terrier, yapping around at everybody's feet, barking out orders. He is also the Welsh Collie, the shepherd, an organiser who is the real link between the forwards and backs.
Scrum-halves are incredibly competitive and ‘driven’ by fear of competition. That is probably why outstanding teams have always had at least two of the highest quality; they constantly challenge each other, compete to improve every skill, train to become faster and seek a closer relationship with their half-back partners. This rivalry drives up standards and means there is little to choose between the protagonists, whose complementary proficiencies are utilised effectively by modern coaches through the policy of "starters" and "finishers".
One has only to think of the competition between Matt Dawson and Kyran Bracken that led to England's greatest day in 2003 or Dawson's rivalry with the equally brilliant Rob Howley during the successful Lions tour to Australia in 2001.
Justin Marshall is heralded as one of the best All Blacks and went on to captain his country, but he would almost certainly have reached the landmark century had it not been for the power and strength of Byron Kelleher. Currently Aaron Smith and T.J. Perenara push each other to new heights, not just in their playing expertise but also in their almost manic fervour in leading the Haka!
It is hard not to think beyond Faf de Klerk in South Africa's green and gold, but there are many in Northampton who would champion the cause of the lightning Cobus Reinach who scored the fastest hat-trick of tries at a World Cup against Canada in Japan last year.
Cobus no doubt inherited that speed from his father Jaco who played for the Springboks on the wing!
Ben Youngs and Danny Care with more than 150 caps between them have taken centre stage for England for over a decade and, whilst Youngs continues, new rivals emerge in Dan Robson and Ben Spencer. France have currently unearthed two sensations in Antoine Dupont and Baptiste Serin as Wales continue to debate the relative merits of Rhys Webb, Gareth Davies and Tomos Williams, the heir apparent.
This whaikorero could continue ad infinitum, but with specialists such as scrum-halves, hookers and props always on the bench, at least today they are racking up the caps!
Spare a thought for people like Raymond "Chico" Hopkins, one of Wales's best scrum-halves. Ray Hopkins played 14 games against New Zealand opposition and was never on a losing side! Yet he played only 20 minutes for Wales. This son of Maesteg (famous as the birthplace of Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau and Thurrock stalwart Lew Hughes as well as neighbours, Keith Richards and Karl Napieralla) was probably the best player never to start a Test match as he lived under the shadow of Gareth Edwards.
Hopkins also has an unbeaten record against England.In 1970,at Twickenham, with England leading 13-6,Gareth Edwards pulled a hamstring. On came the cheeky, super confident Maesteg tyro to completely transform the game with his slick passing and powerful running.
Within minutes he was controlling proceedings with his incessant probing and cajoling of his forwards. He scored a try himself and made another for J.P.R. Williams to help Wales to an unlikely victory 17-13!
Chico Hopkins became a national hero and that 20 minutes got him on to the Lions' tour in 1971. Once again, he became the hero of the piece when in the first test at Dunedin's "House of Pain" he made a real impact coming on early for Gareth Edwards.
He imposed himself on the game and gave a faultless display as the Lions made a winning start, before going on to win the series. Carwyn James, the Lions' coach was so impressed that on his return, he took him to Llanelli where he featured in that club's famous victory over the All Blacks by 9 points to 3 on October 31st, 1972.
However, that was probably the high point of his career. Unable to overcome the disappointment of failing to unseat Edwards, Hopkins signed for Swinton in the Rugby League signalling the end of his Union career.
For many experts and certainly former scrum-halves, the position is the most important and influential on the field. The link between forwards and backs, they provide immediacy in tactics and decision-making. The pre-eminence of the scrum-half was highlighted in 2003 when Gareth Edwards was voted not just the greatest scrum-half of all time, but the greatest player!
There is no doubting his incredible skill-set. A magnificent physical specimen, he was a tremendously powerful athlete, being good enough to hold the Welsh 400 metres hurdles record and a 200 metres champion whilst at Millfield.
Edwards appeared 53 times for Wales winning a record number of Grand Slams, scoring some of Wales's finest tries and, of course, scorer of what became regarded as the greatest try in history for the Barbarians against New Zealand in 1973.
He went on three Lions' tours, achieving immortality after the series wins against New Zealand and South Africa. The achievements of Sir Gareth Edwards are unrivalled in pre World Cup times and hence the commissioning of a statue of him in Cardiff and his Knighthood.
Nevertheless, I have highlighted previously the fact that opinions are subjective, but believe, like Terry Tempest Williams that "Most of all, differences of opinion are opportunities for learning." Plato suggested that "Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance", but that statement needs a degree of deconstruction, in my opinion, as do the words of Thomas Jefferson who speculated that "Difference of opinion leads to inquiry and inquiry to the truth."
Perhaps it is wise to follow the wisdom of the famous Cambridge economist John Maynard Keynes, who explained that "When the facts change, so too do my opinions!"
When people have stated bluntly that it is not possible to make comparisons with the past, I have always agreed that, with the advent of professionalism and physiological development, you cannot compare physicality.
Furthermore, throughout the history of rugby, laws have changed, body shapes, strategies, tactics, styles of play, balls, kit and so much more. As the peerless Cliff Morgan once said. "When I played rugby, the coach was something you went to the match in!"
Notwithstanding, I have repeatedly proposed that a comparison of skills can be relevant. Today, with numerous interactive coaching tools, it is relatively easy to highlight and isolate an individual's performance levels. In the past, it required hours of painstaking reviews and discussion, yet if you took the time to study the performances of Gareth Edwards and Raymond Hopkins during the Lions' tour of New Zealand in 1971, (still the only victorious tour to those shores) you would marvel at the immaculate passing and handling of the leadweight leather ball in the heaviest of muddy conditions. The line-outs were a lottery as these were the days before lifting and, the ball was slapped down to the scrum-half at all angles as the likes of Meads and Kirkpatrick breached the "thin red line"!
Yet their skills were immaculate; rarely did they knock on, or a pass fail to reach Barry John. They controlled the game and were a continual threat. Moreover they converted Carwyn James' strategies into series defining tactics.
Conscious of the pitfalls involved in making comparisons and suggesting correlations, especially those highlighting contrasts and juxtapositions across generations, I decided to consider some of the key skills and qualities which would characterise the very best scrum-halves. Although these principles are by no means exhaustive at least this approach is an antidote to reduce the inherent subjectivity of the author!
There are certain attributes and proficiencies of scrum-Halves that I believe transcend generations and denote greatness:
1. Speed endurance and acceleration "off the mark." Scrum-halves cover more metres than any other player, as they have to be first to the breakdown, every scrum and line-out. Because of their proximity to the action, they invariably act as the closest support runners, poachers who finish off moves. Danny Care and Dan Robson are fine exponents of the trade, whereas Ben Youngs ,Gareth Davies and Rhys Webb are past masters. Youngs scored two superb tries against Italy whilst gaining his 100th cap. Rob Howley had searing pace as do Gareth Davies and Tomos Williams. The likes of Gareth Edwards and Ben Spencer demonstrate speed endurance ,while Dwayne Peel, Dewi Morris, Kyran Bracken, Nick Farr-Jones, Mike Phillips and Rhys Webb were power runners over 30 metres. Gareth Edwards scored what has been described as "the greatest try ever " for the Barbarians against the All Blacks in 1973, by following a "lazy" support line. Chris Ashton, scorer of arguably England's greatest try, scores most of his tries by tracking every break: " I don't have much to do, just follow the right people!"
2. Spontaneity and speed of thought. More than any other player, the 9 has to take decisive action. He needs the peripheral vision to "tap and go" and determines the tempo of the game. Matt Dawson, Rob Howley and George Gregan were outstandingly adroit. On several occasions Dawson completely destroyed Wales by "tapping and going", usually ensuring that somebody like Lawrence Dallaglio was in support. All those who followed England's World Cup success in 2003 will remember Matt Dawson for the vital yards he accrued towards Australia's goal line that brought Jonny Wilkinson within confident range for his tournament winning drop goal.
3. The best passer of the ball. Few will argue with this one. The scrum-half's main aim is to be the team distributor. He is invariably one step away from all the action. He is the one who usually delivers the ball from the scrums, rucks, mauls, line-outs and, literally, every breakdown situation. Scrum-halves are the great innovators, they invented the reverse pass, dive pass and the spin- pass. 125 years ago Welsh scrum-halves were using the reverse dive pass as a decoy at scrums! The spin pass was invented by All Black ,Chris Laidlaw, later an Oxford Blue. Lions' scrum- half, Allan Lewis, learned from Laidlaw that the spiral technique was aerodynamically faster and more accurate. Allan Lewis, the incumbent Welsh scrum-half, demonstrated the pass to the other players at a Wales training camp in 1967. He was the first spin-passer in the Northern Hemisphere. In the camp, Billy Hullin of Cardiff didn't show much interest in this new 'fangled" invention. He played just once for his country. On the other hand, a young Gareth Edwards practised incessantly and became the best. Allan Lewis never played for Wales again, but was the architect of Abertillery's success for the next decade. His beautiful passing and sublime kicking were a pleasure to behold. The Pontypool team was one of the most feared in the world, but on a bleak Wednesday evening in the late sixties, they were leading Abertillery by 6 points to 5 with minutes to go (3 points for a try in those days). Suddenly Allan Lewis unleashed a 20 metre pass to his fly-Half who dropped the winning goal before the famed Pontypool front or back row could get anywhere near him! The spin-pass had transformed the game and its tactics. The very best have the complete range of passes and one of those was Swansea's Robert Jones. A wonderfully crisp passer he performed the role sometimes almost telepathically, knowing where to place the pass, just in front of his fly-half. Most people remember Jonathan Davies's superb try against Scotland in 1988,but it all began with Robert Jones's running reverse pass; pure joy!
4. Strategic and Tactical Acumen. The scrum-half, in tandem with the fly-half is "the conductor of the orchestra". The communicator in chief, he implements the game plan, dictates the tempo of the game and the areas which best suit set plays. Scrum -halves are the conveyancers between forwards and backs as well as the eyes of the pack. They implore the forwards to drive the maul, urge the scrum to greater heights and demand quality ball as well as having "the ear of the ref" with endless enquiries about offside or players "off their feet". Most good scrum- halves have a fine rapport with "Sir", some bring psychological disadvantage by over zealousness. Basically the sensible ones get on with the officials. Largely their loquaciousness and competitive spirit ensures the captaincy resides elsewhere. The Argentinian genius, Augustin Pichot, looked cherubic but always shared humour with the referee.
5. Personality.The scrum-half is usually the "heart and soul" of the changing room. A cheeky chappie who sets the tone for the day. He can be a bit of a shop steward, setting the tone, but also the barometer of expectancy. He yaps away around people, demandingly, driving them mad. He is agile, courageous, likes upsetting people, even team-mates but, above all else, he demands standards and effectiveness .He cajoles, nags and praises. He is ubiquitous ,a caricature, yet loved. Players like Ben Youngs and George Gregan were favourites among fellow players.
6. Physical Prowess. It has often been said that rugby is "A game for people of all shapes and sizes!" The scrum- half was, invariably, the shortest player on the pitch. Not any longer, although it would seem that scrum-half is the position for all shapes and sizes! They range from the persistent little pest type such as Faf de Klerk or Aaron Smith through to the "additional flanker" such as Mike Phillips or Byron Kelleher. Some, like Justin Marshall or Dewi Morris fall between the two. The smaller players tend to be the smoother passers with the taller having the greater range. The bigger players are often accused of "taking extra steps" before passing, although this can wrong foot flankers who are challenged by the possibility of a dummy!
7. Outstanding kicker. Both in attack and defence the scrum- half should be a brilliant specialist. Lloyd Williams of Cardiff and Wales is superb as he kicks equally well off either foot,thus reducing the possibility of getting charged down. The "Box kick" is the favourite weapon as it gives the opportunity to win possession back quickly. As Rob Howley once said "25 metres across, 25 metres in the air and 3 5 seconds to get there!" With chasers like Jonny May and Anthony Watson England are top exponents of the art! Arguably the World's best "Box kicker" is Irishman Connor Murray.
8. Partnership Exponents. The scrum-half works in harmony with the fly-half. Their relationship is sacrosanct. They play in tandem with the pair determining the best options in both attack and defence. There are few successful teams without this vital synchronicity. Playing together at club level is an obvious advantage. Gareth Edwards and Barry John played at Cardiff together as did Cliff Morgan and Rex Willis. Terry Holmes and Gareth Davies, Carwyn James and Onllwyn Brace, etc. In some ways England suffered as they rarely picked club partnerships: Paul Grayson and Matt Dawson being the exception. Nick Farr-Jones and Michael Lynagh, brought the best out of each other as did George Gregan and Stephen Larkham for Australia. Joost van der Westhuizen and Joel Stransky were synonymous with South Africa's first World Cup while de Klerk and Handre Pollard ensured victory in 2019. Dave Loveridge and Grant Fox led New Zealand to the first World Cup in 1987, but they stuttered to victory in 2011 when most of their top ranking half backs were injured. It was left to Dan Carter and Aaron Smith to dominate proceedings in 2015. England have been well served by the Youngs/ Ford axis in recent years: but seem less fluent when the partnership is interrupted. Wales have been served by numerous great pairings. Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett were perhaps the best, but not far behind were the mercurial Robert Jones and Jonathan Davies. Currently Argentinians Thomas Cubelli and Nicolas Sanchez look to be in prime form!
9. Outstanding exponent of specialist skills. Since the pass is central to every try scored, then it goes without saying that the best nines are the best passers. They are dynamic side-steppers, throw outrageous dummies and often drive through opponents. Ben Youngs' first try in his 100th game involved a feint and a side step, both completely deceiving the defenders. Rob Howley's try against Toulouse in the European Cup Final was probably his most famous in 2010, but nothing like his side-stepping burst through the England defence a few years earlier! Matt Dawson's overhead dummy and try for the Lions against World champions South Africa in 1997 set the scene for an unlikely series win. Nowadays, the interception is a vital weapon in the armoury. It needs precision, otherwise a penalty and yellow card are likely. Gareth Davies scored a superb interception try in the World Cup warm-up game against England last year as a result of harassing Owen Farrell like an extra flanker throughout the game.
10. Courageous Risk Taking Visionaries. The bravest are usually the best. Taking on the back row with tenacity requires real valour. Terry Holmes relished the task as did Dewi Morris and Mike Phillips. Phillips was the ultimate competitor, constantly telling his opponents(and friends) that he was the best scrum-half in the World! I only wish he'd had the vision to run nearer the posts when scoring his try against France in the World Cup semi-final in 2011! Instead, Stephen Jones's conversion hit the post and 14 man Wales lost their best chance of a World Cup! Winners always have brilliant scrum-halves and understudies who are game changers. Faf de Klerk and Cobus Reinach are an impeccable pairing and pose the biggest threat to next year's British and Irish Lions.
Great players are invariably reliable and phlegmatic , but the greatest have a certain "Je ne sais quoi", an indefinable quality, which is the point of difference.
At the end of the last century and the early part of this one British rugby was blessed with two outstanding number 9s. These two were the envy of the rugby playing world. Matt Dawson played a pivotal role in England's rise to be a world power. Slightly unorthodox, his quick-thinking and sniping close to the breakdown was almost unstoppable. In some ways, Rob Howley was more traditional, but equally effective. They both fought for the Lions berth, but the outcome was inconclusive. For England, Dawson had a dominant pack which provided more space, but what a decision maker!
Matt Dawson also courted controversy and on the Lions' tour of 2001 he kept a diary in which he documented his feelings about poor preparation. When the management found out about the diary ,they were about to send Dawson home. Luckily, Martin Johnson, the captain, in his usual straightforward manner announced that if Matt Dawson was sent packing, he would be following him on the next flight out! That emphasised his value and nobody went home!
In spite of their oft reported financial issues, the Southern Hemisphere continues to outsway the North .Of the nine World Cups to date, South Africa and New Zealand have won three apiece, Australia two and England the solitary winners from the North. Dave Loveridge was voted the best scrum-half in the world after he captained the All Blacks in the inaugural tournament. New Zealand had produced some tough 9s prior to that like the inscrutable Sid Going, Kevin ‘hard as nails’ Briscoe and Chris Laidlaw who changed the passing game forever!
Faf de Klerk, with his speed around the base, benign feistiness and complete domination of games as well as the ability to discombobulate the opposition is a genuine South African superstar, but his career is in its infancy.
Joost van der Westhuizen was a highly intelligent and creative 9 who prevailed in the 1995 World Cup. He gained 89 caps and scored 38 tries. Sadly he lost his battle against Motor Neurone disease in 2017.
Australia had their irrepressible captain in Nick Farr-Jones, who miraculously returned from injury to claim the Webb-Ellis Cup in 1991.For many, the effervescent George Gregan, with his 139 caps and two World Cup final appearances ,will figure strongly. As well as being Australia's highest capped player, with Stephen Larkham, he holds the World record of 79 games for a half-back partnership. Will Genia is another similar type of player with over a hundred caps. The current Wallaby in position is the former Exeter chief, Nick White.
Meanwhile, across the Tasman, Aaron Smith will go down as a swift passing energetic 9 and Justin Marshall as one of their best.
When England reached the World Cup Final in 1991, Richard Hill was the only scrum-half.
Honourable mention must be made of Dickie Jeeps, an outstanding England and Lions' servant.
Connor Murray is held in high esteem and has a terrific kicking game, even from the tee, but his lack of top end speed rules him out of contention. In the past, Andy Mulligan was a fine player and Roger Young a worthy contemporary of Gareth Edwards.
Roy Laidlaw, Alan Lawson (Bill McClaren's son-in-law),Gary Armstrong and Greig Laidlaw stand out among the Scots.
Of the current crop, I enjoy watching the wholehearted Thomas Cubelli of Argentina, while Augustin Pichot with his darting runs and passion is a real favourite.
I have already highlighted the fact that Baptiste Serin and Antoine Dupont are both exceptional French talents. Dupont with his strength, rapier-like breaks and open field speed make him the consummate scrum-half. Lacking self consciousness, this genius of a Frenchman has the ability to excite the rugby public and give his country a realistic shot at the 2023 World Cup.
The half-back positions are usually the preserve of the artistes or self-proclaimed intellects of the team. The difference being the immediacy of action of the inside partner, rather than the more controlled reasoning and tactical appreciation of the 10. Much of the game pivots around these two as they invariably dictate the flow and direction of a game plan. They are in continual contact, cupping hands around the mouth, making hand signals to pre-empt a set move or keep the opposition guessing. The scrum- half is the agent-provocateur of the team, none better than 99 cap, Mike Phillips of Wales or All Black, Justin Marshall. They provide entertainment and a side-show to the main event; sometimes cultured and sophisticated, often slapstick as they test each other's skills around the base of the scrum.
During a lifetime of being involved in rugby, I have been privileged to be able to play with and against some outstanding scrum-halves. At school in Wales my half-back partners were Trevor Hoskins who moved to centre and became Abertillery's record points scorer, and later, Steve Lewis, who went on to be Ebbw Vale's record points scorer, an English triallist while at Bath and, in a stellar career, the Chief Executive of the Welsh Rugby Union (and a friend of Jeff Selway).
Steve was unlucky to live in an age when Gareth Edwards reigned supreme, but this elegant, focussed and ultra- competitive scrum-half would surely have been capped in a different era!
At Abertillery Youth, I played alongside the more flamboyant, but no less effective Ricky Taylor-a lifelong friend. We had great fun teasing the opposition.
Upon graduating to the senior team, I was in awe of the all-round exquisite skills of British Lion, Allan Lewis. The first spiral passer in the northern Hemisphere, Allan was certainly the most sophisticated and stylish exponent of the trade I have ever seen.
If Wales was said to have a "Fly-Half Factory", then surely Cardiff College was the scrum-half equivalent! I am sure that Brian Davies and Steve Bowen will respond to this statement and Loughborough, Exeter and Cambridge too!
If the move to England seemed a little daunting, it was tempered by the vast numbers of people playing the game. Thurrock, like many teams in the area, ran eight sides! Eastern Counties were one of the leading counties in England with six internationals including scrum-half, Jacko Page of Cambridge University and Northampton. The Essex captain was former London Welsh scrum-half and Campion legend, John Davies, who later became the coach of Saracens.
They also featured Tony O'Hanlon of Richmond, although my favourite was the England Under 23 representative, Charlie Dunsford. This effervescent, stylish player was a pleasure to play alongside and so much fun.
Most of all, it was an honour to play at Thurrock with so many great players and friends. My first half-back partner was David Campbell-James. David was a brilliant all rounder. An immaculate passer, low centre of gravity, he was a real livewire and a true gentleman of the game. Modest and understated, David Campbell- James became one of the country's leading yachtsmen. An Olympian in the Tornado Class at Los Angeles in 1984, he is mentioned in Sebastian Coe''s autobiography as a victim of the Yachting Association's decision to boycott the Moscow Olympics of 1980, where, according to Lord Coe, he might well have won gold!
Having played a major role in Thurrock's first Essex Cup Final an injury meant that Richard Jones had to be promoted. When Dickie himself, failed a fitness test, Thurrock turned to veteran, Gordon Eckley. A stalwart of the club and close friend of President, Brian Howells, this all-rounder was a fine player. After a swansong in the Eastern Counties Final, Gordon gave way to Aveley schoolboy, Mark Suckling. At 17, Mark was one of the modern ,physical specimens. Bearing more of a resemblance to a flanker, this young man had a colossal left handed pass which took the 10 way beyond the open-side's grasp. Difficult to handle, Mark really took the eye of England's Chair of Selectors, Dickie Jeeps, when Thurrock defeated Saffron Walden in the Eastern Counties Final at Cambridge.
During another final at Ipswich, Mark was on the Bench. John Mahoney was having a superb game and bossing the match when a crushing tackle broke his ribs! The large Ipswich crowd thought this would be the turning point. Mark Suckling entered the fray, threw a 30 yard pass and there was a gasp of astonishment from the crowd! A late Peter Worsfold try off a set move ,won the day.
In 1975, fresh from Cardiff, came the Blackheath and Eastern Counties scrum-half, John Mahoney. John had studied alongside the great Welsh International and British Lion, Brynmor Williams (father of current Welsh player, Lloyd). Indeed, Brynmor, came up to play for an International XV at the opening of Oakfield. In the event, an injury meant that he did the live commentary on the match. This was the first time he had performed such a role before a long career with BBC Wales.
John Mahoney had mastered all the essential skills and his darting runs kept the opposition under pressure. He rarely gave a bad pass and knew when to release the outside backs. John was "man of the match" when Thurrock played Exeter in the John Player Cup in 1981.He was a regular for Essex and Eastern Counties and joined Charlie Dunsford in selection for the England Under 23 squad. Certainly one of the best players ever to don the Black and White of Thurrock.
Suddenly the stock rose when Steve Bowen joined from Eton Manor. The former London Welshman was a high stepping, Sevens star who played at Twickenham in 1980. Another great occasion was the game against Newbridge in Wales. Steve Bowen, from Taffs Well was a great tourist and led the team's anthem rendition in Bulgaria.
These three were all first class players and performed with distinction throughout.
In those days, Thurrock ran eight teams and the strength in depth was exemplified when Newbridge returned to Oakfield the following year. With a host of injuries, Thurrock struggled to field a team. Mahoney, Bowen and Steve Edwards were out of contention, as was Austin Fitzmaurice! There was a call to a retired fly-half. Quickly he was in touch with former William Edwards student, Ray Garner. Newbridge arrived having just played in the semi-final of the Welsh Cup and laden with Internationals. Dennis Hughes, a Wales No.8; Paul Turner at fly-half ,Barbarian pitman, Brandon Cripps, at prop (Brandon was a powerful man of Abertillery and a friend of my brother, Stuart, a staunch Thurrock supporter who travelled up from Wales on a regular basis to see John Magnusson) and Welsh triallist Paul Evans at centre.
Paul Turner was soon to be on the winning side against England and went on to be a leading coach. He transferred to Sale, where he broke the record for the highest number of drop goals in a season (25).This put him in second place in the World alongside the England fly-half, Les Cusworth.
The odds were stacked against Thurrock, but Ray Garner was remarkable, grinning his way through the game. Dennis Stone had been brought out of retirement, too and scorched through the defence on a set piece. Graham Davies, bamboozled the opposition with a stepping, sliding long range effort and, after a trademark drop goal Thurrock led 16-3 at half time. Paul Turner inspired a fightback and the Welsh team scraped home to a narrow win. What a game, which will live long in the memory.
With the retirement of senior players, the next generation threw up another pair of incredibly talented scrum-halves. Ian Jones, yet another former pupil of William Edwards, was a tough, rugged player. Inspired by his father, Rhymney legend, Allan Jones, Ian honed his skills in New Zealand and was an epitome of those islands' players. Another great Sevens star, Ian led the team to victory in the prestigious Sevenoaks competition. His rivalry with Martin Eyles was reminiscent of the Mahoney/Bowen/Suckling competition. Known for his uncompromising tackling, Jones was the complete package.
Martin Eyles, from Maidstone, was another graduate of Cardiff College and taught at William Edwards. He had lightning speed off the mark and, although only 5ft 6 at best, had the highest sergeant jump ever seen. A great, all-round athlete, he starred for Eastern Counties and was one of the country's leading 9s. Martin completely outplayed the incumbent Ireland scrum-half, Rob Saunders, in the famous victory over London Irish. He scored a darting try under the posts and, with John Steven, orchestrated a wonderful game plan.
The next generation was overseen by Tim Hughes and, once again, he found some excellent players: Chris Machin was Jonny Wilkinson's best man and captained the team. Tim brought in Rob Earley, another loyal skipper. Steve Morriit (Willow) played some good rugby in both half-back positions.
Around the same time as Paul McCarthy, a young Paul Dale came through the Thurrock system. I was brought out of retirement (yet again) to partner this youthful scrum- half against Ryland Evans's touring Canadian Team. An impressive kicker, strong defender and fluent passer, it was obvious that Paul would continue the fine record in this position. Clearly he was an excellent leader and hardly surprising that he would rise through the ranks at Tilbury and become a staunch supporter of Thurrock.
Under the stewardship of Dave Pavitt, Jamie Daisley and Mike Wilkins, restructuring took place and, with the arrival of Ian Rudgeley, Rob Batho and Andy (Cat) Eaton, the club gained promotion. Andy Eaton had played in Division One with Barking and was the complete package. A powerful kicker and another in the Mike Phillips mould, Eaton had learned his trade from his father, Alan, a Basildon teacher of renown, who had taught Jon Langley. Aaron Burns was a fine goal-kicking understudy and had played against Chelmsford alongside older brother, Damian!
When Eaton and Batho retired to set up business, it was essential to rebuild. Josh Cook joined from Barking ostensibly to play with Rudgeley and future World Cup star, Mike Stanley.(Incidentally, Ben, was born to be a scrum-half after he, too, had been a student at William Edwards). Josh Cook was an ebullient, high class operator. In the mould of Dewi Morris.
He was tigerish in the tackle and had a powerful service. His running lines close to the breakdown caused pandemonium as Thurrock had the best League season in its history, losing only one game and gaining promotion to National 3. Cookie was particularly adept at the "tap and go" penalty. Spotting the opportunity early he had a tremendously powerful right footed side step which usually took him past the first defender. The second step allowed the offload to No.8, Brad Rattigan, with whom he had forged a good understanding.
Josh Cook faced strong competition from two youngsters, Alex Jones and Jake Bedding. Jake moved to the world's first club, Blackheath to further his rugby education and, after Josh was injured and went into semi-retirement, Alex Jones carried the responsibility into the next era. Alex had received an outstanding grounding at Campion and forged a lifelong friendship with Tom Worsfold, son of Peter and a pinpoint kicker of the ball. Alex went on to prove himself a consummate player and leader, both at club and county level.
When Jake Bedding returned to his parent club, he was delighted to be playing alongside England Sevens player, Sam Stanley. Blessed with genuine pace and a smooth service, Jake has the ability to dominate matches. The healthy competition between the top Essex scrum-halves should bear fruit over the next few seasons as both reach their prime.
Eddie Stevens, in his final year at Swansea University, has a speedy service and is hugely competitive. Having made his first team debut at 17,this product of St Cleres and USP has a great future. It will be interesting to see his battle with another Campion first teamer, Tom Saunders. Tom is a gutsy individual with a good range of skills and former a solid partnership with Dan Stone.
One of the most pleasing features of the last full season was the form of the Colts. They are producing some exciting players of the future and we are already keeping our eyes on the likes of Spencer Gallery of USP, Archie Holding and Luke Mitchell! Hopefully the players of the past have left a stimulating legacy.
The great thing about this debate is that it provokes discussion and passion. We all have our favourites and, no doubt, I have omitted somebody's preferred choice!
A recent survey concluded that the Five greatest scrum-halves of all time were:
1. Sir Gareth Edwards.
2. Joost van der Westhuizen.
3. George Gregan.
4. Matt Dawson.
5. Nick Farr-Jones.
Who am I to disagree? Maybe Dupont will appear as the next Petit Caporal?