Rugby: Evolution No 9 - a half history

The human race is getting bigger, stronger and taller. But in rugby, the halfback seems to be getting smaller and shorter. Rugby writer Steve Hepburn looks at the evolution of the No 9 through the years.

In the beginning

Rugby at an international level in the early stages was low-scoring and involved a lot of dribbling. The wing forward made life tough for the halfbacks. The Invincibles had East Coast-bred Jimmy Mill. He was just 1.70m and 70kg, and ran often. Despite having the likes of George Nepia and Bert Cooke outside him, he loved to take the ball up himself.

The doctor arrives

In 1937, Danie Craven arrived in New Zealand, and his halfback play for the Springboks revolutionised the way the game was played.

He brought the dive pass to this country and could zip around the field and find his outsides with speed and accuracy. He made a massive contribution to a Springbok series victory, and at 80kg was relatively big for a halfback in those days.

After the war

Kaitangata boy Jimmy Haig was picked for the All Blacks. A nuggety player, it looked as though he was going to have a long career but he defected to league.

Haig weighed in at only 70kg.

But that was a monster compared to Ponty Reid, who helped beat the Springboks in 1956. Reid was just 1.6m tall and weighed less than 63kg. But he stood up to the Boks, and was made captain of the national side the following year.

The swinging '60s

Chris Laidlaw. Photo ODT files.
Chris Laidlaw. Photo ODT files.
Straight out of King's High School was the colossal passer, Chris Laidlaw. He could heave the ball almost the length of the backline and came in at about 75kg.

Across the ditch, Ken Catchpole was the captain of his country in his first test and helped the Wallabies become a force.

Then, from the backblocks of North Auckland came Sid Going and he was in some ways the first of a new breed.

Going's first instinct was not to pass. It was to look for a break, and more than often it would come off. He was of a stocky build, and after Laidlaw retired he became the No 1 choice for the All Blacks.

The Welsh wizards

As Going was emerging, so was Gareth Edwards over in Wales.

Edwards is often said to be the finest player to don the red jersey. He could do it all and was a great runner. Is there anyone in the world who has not seen his 1973 Barbarians try against the All Blacks?

After Edwards retired along came Terry Holmes, who at more than 1.80m and near on 90kg was a torrid player. He loved the rough and tumble rather than the pass and occasional kick.

Back home, the likes of Mark Donaldson and Dave Loveridge could pass but had handy running games.

Getting bigger

Australian Nick Farr-Jones was the top halfback of the late 1980s and early 1990s but he could have played in the midfield, such was his size and skill.

Back in New Zealand, Graeme Bachop was in and out of the black jersey but at the 1995 World Cup was the clear No 1. He had a lightning pass and that is all he did. With the likes of Lomu, Bunce and Wilson in the backline few could argue against that. Left for Japan when he was only 28 and went on to play for that country.

Another loosie

As the game went professional, players got bigger and stronger.

Halfbacks were no exception.

They became another forward in many teams and the ability to pass the ball almost became an afterthought.

Junior Tonu'u weighed in at 94kg and could mix it with the biggest of forwards.

Justin Marshall left the Mataura freezing works and proceeded to play 81 tests and bulked up to 94kg. The entire forest of the central North Island would have to be replanted to recover the amount of paper used to debate the merits of Marshall's passing ability.

In behind him was Byron Kelleher, who had a fine pass but was more of a runner. He weighed in at 95kg and was a livewire with ball in hand.

In South Africa, Joost van der Westhuizen stood 1.85m and never turned a blind eye to a confrontation. George Gregan played 139 times for Australia and although he weighed in at just 76kg, he was a ball of muscle who ran the ball often.

Jimmy and friends

Jimmy Cowan was a great defensive halfback. He was good in the tackle, had not a bad pass and loved the tough stuff. At 95kg, he could look after himself. Often it was about confront, rather than elude.

Welshman Mike Phillips was another one who loved the physical stuff. And he was bigger than Cowan.

Andy Gomarsall was a big, rugged halfback for England, while Fourie du Preez was a solid 90kg and at 1.8m tall never backed down to anyone.

Piri Weepu was one of the stars of the show for the All Blacks in 2011 but his pass was not his strongest asset.

The new boys

Will Genia. Photo Reuters.
Will Genia. Photo Reuters.
So, we now reach the end of 2012, and as the game gets even quicker the passer appears to be back in vogue.

Aaron Smith has made every post a winner this year and is clearly the nation's top No 9 at present. His strength is his speed of pass and ability to free up his backline.

He will be backed up in the Highlanders by Japanese pocket rocket Fumiaki Tanaka.

Tanaka may have the same sized feet as a school kid but he has a sweet pass and always finds his man. Size really means nothing to this duo. Other New Zealand halfbacks of this mould include TJ Perenara, August Pulu and Jamieson Gibson-Park.

Will Genia is in the same mould - small, quick and dangerous.

Throw in the likes of Mike Blair, Conor Murray and Ben Youngs, and it seems the small man with the bullet pass is back in vogue.

stephen.hepburn@odt.co.nz