This World Cup looked set to usher in an era of young fly halves taking over from those who have been such an integral part of the rugby landscape over the past decade. Many of the leading nations, particularly in the four home unions, have turned to new men to take the tiller and steer the ship through the often rocky seas of a World Cup.
Except it looks as though it may not quite pan out that way. A couple of months ago Toby Flood was the incumbent England fly half having held that position for the best part of 18 months. He now appears to have been usurped by that master of World Cups, Jonny Wilkinson, who, goal kicking travails aside, looks destined to be at the centre of England’s charge.
After the third round of matches there is a very real possibility that some other countries could follow suit. Jonny Sexton of Ireland has been preferred to Ronan O’Gara in big games in recent times. By the end of the game against Australia they were both on the pitch and after a few missed kicks by the younger man, the old stager took over and was flawless. O’Gara then followed that up with an extremely assured man of the match performance against the USA. He has given the selectors a real decision to make.
A similar pattern can be seen from the Welsh. With James Hook, my clear choice as the best fly half, seemingly consigned to the 15 jersey, Rhys Priestland has been the man in possession for the past few games. He has equipped himself very well and his selection against South Africa was a huge vote of confidence for a man of such limited experience. But would Stephen Jones have missed the potentially match-winning drop goal which Priestland missed? Jones played with his usual assurance against Namibia. Similar to Ireland, the selectors will have to decide whether, in the highly charged environs of a World Cup knock out match which can rarely be replicated elsewhere, they are prepared to trust their younger man or reach for the experience which often counts for so much on this stage.
Australia may be facing a similar conundrum. When Quade Cooper is hot he is unstoppable. When he is not he is little short of a liability who can completely undermine the Wallabies. He will always create more than your average player because he tries so many things others would never have conceived but this also means he makes more mistakes. There comes a time when a coach has to decide whether such a player is more of an asset or a liability to his team. For most of the past couple of years he has been emphatically the former but several times this season, namely against New Zealand in Auckland, against Ireland where he went missing and against the USA when he had a bit of a shocker he definitely ended with more on the debit side of his balance sheet.
Things were complicated further by the assured performance of Berrick Barnes who came on at 10. He played flat, distributed and kicked well and his decision-making was nigh on flawless. He has been on the fringes in recent times and has played mainly at 12 but he certainly showed the selectors that they have options. The omission of Matt Giteau and the absence of another out and out 10 shows the confidence Robbie Deans has in his man but the respective recent performances of Cooper and Barnes will put that to the test.
I would include France’s fly half selections in this article but so random and bizarre are many of Marc Lievremont’s selections there really doesn’t seem much point in discussing them.
A solid fly half is essential to any World Cup winning team. Sometimes it is a choice between experience and youth or flair versus conservatism. Not everybody has the luxury of a Dan Carter who can control the game, kick goals and still find time to score 30 test tries. In past tournaments both Carlos Spencer and Frederic Michalak, having lit up the early stages of the tournament, proved detrimental to their teams when the heat was on while on the other hand Clive Woodward admitted that he made a mistake in 1999 in going for the experience of Paul Grayson over the precocious youth of Wilkinson.
Only hindsight will tell us who makes the right call but coaches know that everybody will have an opinion on their team’s fly half position and that they must stand and fall by their decision.
by Stuart Peel