He has not received much credit, but Andy Ellis was one of the key men in the All Blacks World Cup final victory. One of the crucial aspects of playing number 9 is to establish a relationship with the referee. The top half backs are world class diplomats. They get the ref onside, even when some of their teammates may not be. Ellis did that for the All Blacks.
There were times in that brutal final 30 minutes when a pedantic referee might have picked up one of our forwards for being off his feet or for placing a foot in an offside position. But Andy was able to get our players backs onside and at the same time establish a relationship with referee Craig Joubert. He let the ref know that we were a disciplined side and, as halfback, he would do everything to keep his teammates within the laws. It was a huge part of our win.
The half back has a massive amount of responsibility on the pitch. The first and foremost part of his game is the pass. A backline cannot function without a great passing halfback. It doesn’t matter if it is the zero degree flat pass to a forward strike runner or the longer pass to the deeper first receiver. Speed and accuracy are everything.
One of the better passers I have ever seen was Graeme Bachop. He had such strong wrists he could pass the ball from a mid-body position. His technique also never gave the defence a cue as to whether he was going to pass or run. It all created extra space and time for those outside.
Lee Dickson’s pass has brought some of that fizz to England when he has come off the bench, although I rate Ben Youngs. He looks down on confidence at the moment. Youngs hesitancy may be due to an uncertainty over his role or there may be other things going on, but he is always a threat on the run.
That is the next part of the half back’s game. When Youngs goes on that semi-circular arcing run from the base, he is such a menace himself that it creates space for others. The same is true of Mike Phillips. But as an all round player Will Genia would be the best in the world. He and Luke Burgess are both brilliant on the arc.
Genia is also expert at checking out the space behind, another important skill. From a midfield scrum 9 is the best kicking option, particularly moving to the right. If the wing is flat, the half back can put a grubber in behind and turn it into a footrace between the full back, who will be coming from centre field, and the chasers.
There is also quite a difference in philosophy between the major sides. The French half back kicks a lot and much of it is predetermined according to field position. The All Blacks look to run first and only kick when the wide defence is up and the option is blocked.
New Zealand is always after quick ball and we like the half back to put together our attack quickly. Australia will tend to re-organise more often. The All Blacks pivot is the number 10. Australia’s pivot is the number 9. Genia might kick 16 times in a game and Quade Cooper only twice. For New Zealand the stats tend to be reversed.
It is all a question of philosophy, but either way the half-back has to be super fit. Genia must be one of the fittest guys in rugby given the game time he plays. Most teams replace their half back after 60 minutes because they just do so much work.
In defence I like my 9’s to be strong enough to tackle close to the fringe and resilient enough to bounce straight back up into their organising role. They have a massive job defensively and in attack they have to make ruck after ruck.
Piri Weepu is a lion heart but the groundsman at Eden Park loved him because he would suck up all the leaves. That’s how much he was gasping for air. It is the same for all half backs. It’s a tough job, but absolutely crucial to the success of the team.