How to build your D by loading the halfback
Over 12 months ago now, I wrote this article, showing how the defensive activity of the number 9 has been expanded in the professional era.
The original idea behind the piece was a comparison of the rugby scrum-half with Soccer’s ‘libero’ – the free-floating defender who had a mandate to sweep up behind the defence, and provide an extra man in attack by running past his own midfield players and joining up with the forwards.
The article focused on the use of the spare man to rush the kicker and force a block-down, using South African number 9 ‘Faf’ de Klerk as an example. The variety of roles required of the scrum-half in defence are still developing rapidly, if the evidence of recent games in the post-Covid era is to be believed.
The performance of the Queensland Reds’ starting half-back Tate McDermott in the recent semi-final of Super Rugby Australia provided an excellent example. In a wider tactical context, the game further illustrated the importance of the ability of the bench halfback to cover multiple positions in the back-line, especially in a 6-2 split between forwards and backs.
The Reds’ reserve scrum-half Moses Sorovi was required to enter the fray as early as the 36th minute of the match – not as replacement for McDermott, but for the Queensland right wing Chris Feauai-Sautia, and he proved surprisingly effective in such an unfamiliar role. If there is one player who can cover the majority of back-line positions off the pine, it currently looks more likely to be a scrum-half than a player from the back three.
The halfback is beginning to accrue ever greater importance as a defender folding to cover behind a rushing defensive line. This role frequently demands a huge amount of aerobic effort. Here is the very start of the game between the Reds and the Rebels, with the team from Melbourne running the ball out from their own 22:
Tate McDermott ends up making the tackle on the left side-line, but he began the play in the ‘boot’ on the right-hand 15 metre line!
With the Reds intent on rushing even when short-handed, someone has to cover the space beyond them, and the number 9 is the spare man.
Just over two minutes later, McDermott was performing the more traditional role of a sweeping halfback, picking up the pieces after a dangerous short kick through midfield as the Rebels threatened near the Queensland 22.
At the critical moment, McDermott can either enter the line or drop back to cover the kick:
The number 9 is the defensive jack-of-all-trades in the modern game. At the start of defensive lineouts, he can usually be found defending in the short-side tram-lines, with the wing on that side in the backfield:
At scrums, with the wing again defending off against the kick, he may once more find himself as an emergency front-line defender on the edge of the field:
Tate McDermott starts to the right of the scrum, and if play moves in that direction, he would become the first defender on the wide side of the field. If it goes left to the short side, he runs around the set-piece and morphs into an improvised left wing to make the first-up tackle.
When the back three has to rotate over towards a wide attack by the opponent, the defensive 9 can also slip into a backfield role as acting full-back:
With the full-back “1” drawn up to the line, “2” shifts across to take up his responsibilities from the left wing, and “3” McDermott drops in to defend the vacated left side of the backfield zone.
If this was a conclusive statement about the scrum-half as the most important and versatile defender in the back-line, it was only underlined by Moses Sorovi’s appearance as a replacement right wing for the last hour of the match. There was no loss of momentum in the Reds rush off the edge:
Number 21 Sorovi is the last defender, and he recognizes the opportunity to rush the first two Rebels’ passers, who both happen to be tight forwards. The five on three overlap on the short side is an illusion which can never be actualized.
The value of the number 9 as the joker in the pack is perhaps even more pointed off the bench. If you have a scrum-half who can cover wing (like Sorovi) or both halfback positions (like T.J. Perenara), then you can afford to load up with six forwards in your second half substitutions. That represents a priceless addition to the coach’s tactical armoury.