Ask the people down your local club what they think the most important skill for a fly-half or midfield back is. I reckon speed and passing might feature at the top of a lot of lists, but I am not sure how many would identify ‘catching’ as the number one priority. It seems, well, it seems so ordinary. Anyone can catch a rugby ball, right? Or nearly everyone.
But just being able to catch the ball isn’t nearly good enough for a top class fly-half. In a game of rugby the number 10 might catch the ball something like 40 or 50 times. No other skill is quite so prevalent. If he kicked it that many times he would get booed off the pitch. If he faced that many tackles, he would phone the emergency services.
The modern fly-half passes a lot, yet even the frequency of that skill does not compare to all the times he catches the ball. But the fly-half who catches the ball into his chest, because he wants to be sure of possession, is already cutting down his options. If he wants to pass the ball he has to get it back out in front again. If he wants to chip kick, he can’t drop the ball down from the chest or it will hit his thigh. If he wants to run, he is in no position to offload. So at all levels I work and work with my midfield backs to make sure that they run on to the ball and catch it out in front of them.
It is a much more difficult skill to master than you may expect. You have a ball whizzing across the body, your motion is almost at right angles, you can’t use your arms to cradle it securely and you have an attack dog heading at your throat. I call it “the hand grab” and it takes practice.
Even in the build-up to a World Cup the Scotland backs practise their catching. The skills don’t change whether you are a 10-year-old or a test footballer. If you want to know about the importance of catching the ball properly, watch the Aussies. They are superb at it. One of the reasons they have so much time is the accuracy of their catching. If Quade Cooper caught the ball into his chest he would lose half a second and would not have time to reload against blitz defences. But the accuracy of his catch creates the time and the options to turn an aggressive defence into a doubting defence. ‘The hand grab’ may just be the most underrated skill in rugby.