The choice of scrum-half has been a subject of contention for England fans, coaches, and pundits alike for many years now. Since the early 2010s, there has been a fight for the jersey between Ben Youngs and Danny Care in particular.
It was a tight battle over the number 9 shirt that lasted for just under 10 years before Care was dropped in 2018 after an ill-fated match against Japan. From then on, Ben Youngs was given the rights over the shirt, for which he helped control one of the most successful periods of English rugby in modern times.
Questions have arisen over the past few years, however, particularly concerning Young‘s decision-making and ability to remain at the highest level. Up until recently, with the emergence of the young Leicester Tiger, Jack van Poortvliet, there were no real challengers for Youngs’ position.
That all changed following the summer tour to Australia last year, in which Van Poortvliet came off the bench in the first test to add some real zip to the English attack. It was a tour without Youngs that also saw the reintroduction of Danny Care after 4 years in the international wilderness. These inclusions led many to believe that Youngs may see his way back into the England squad blocked by new talent and an in-form Care.
The final match of the Australian tour proved calamitous for the experienced Care, however, after being dragged off by Eddie Jones after just 36 minutes due to a lack of control on the game. This for many appeared to be the end of the spritely scrum half’s England career.
This, as it turned out, was not to be – following the change in leadership with former Leicester Head Coach, Steve Borthwick, taking up the reins.
Following numerous squad announcements, it has appeared that the former Bath and Saracens captain, now England Head Coach, Borthwick, has elected for both experienced number 9s Danny Care and Ben Youngs to be included in the squad. Their combined 209 caps for the national side gives Borthwick impressive options alongside the 12-cap youngster, Jack van Poortvliet.
“We haven’t seen that many nines come through in the last decade, which is mainly testament to Ben,” Simpson said about Ben Youngs’ longevity in the squad.
“I think he’s been fantastic for England, a top-quality international scrum-half. Consistently competing at that level is phenomenal. He’s been the stalwart and Danny has been there for a few years, too.”
It is a testament to Youngs and Care that since the formers debut back in 2010, they have owned 75% of all starts at scrumhalf between them, leaving other players, including Simpson himself, Dan Robson, and several other promising young players, to make do with only substitute appearances.
It is, however, Youngs’ decision-making, particularly around the ruck that many have had issues with. Rugby is a game that many want to see as free-flowing and attacking from everywhere on the field, but as Simpson says, the ability to control a game and slow it down where necessary can separate the good from the great.
“Rugby is full of opinions and most of them come from people with no understanding of rugby” continued Simpson. “Everyone seems to have a romanticised idea of what winning rugby is because they played at under-15 level and remember running the ball and scoring tries.
“Particularly at international level, defences are so good that it is so hard to break things down. The risk-reward of playing from your half is just off. Any mistake and you give away a penalty and your opposition will kick three points or bang it to within five metres. If you throw caution to the wind and run from your own half, you’re likely to get stung.
“The complaints have to be with people that make the laws rather than players that interpret them. I’m telling you now, people would be even more miffed if their team ran the ball from deep and lost control of the game.”
This being said, the multi-club scrum-half has found a particular issue with the modern caterpillar ruck:
“Caterpillar rucks are a travesty. I earned lots of my money from box-kicking tens of thousands of times but it’s not enjoyable. If you listed out what you wanted to see on a rugby pitch, I don’t think high-ball competitions between the touchlines and 15-metres lines would be high on anyone’s list. Maybe just above re-set scrums? Why is there a law that presents an advantage to slowing the game down?
“Caterpillar rucks don’t make sense. There is a five-second law that is not enforced. Get rid of caterpillar rucks, make it easier for scrum-halves to be charged down. Then teams will kick off 10 [from fly-half] more. That’s a quicker kick that will aim to go to space.”
“I’m not encouraging England to pick livewires and throw it about, that’s not the best way for them to win a World Cup.
“Nine is obviously such a key position and so many teams are taught to be conservative,” he adds. “At Gloucester and Bath, the game-plan was to box-kick to compete from our own try-line up until even the opposition 10-metre line. You box-kick, you compete for a 50-50 and then if you lose the ball, you back your defence.
“That culture lends itself to defensive, tactical players. That’s probably why we saw Willi Heinz go to a World Cup. He’s a fantastic player with a great pass, but it was his sense of control on a game. Alex Mitchell, I think, is brilliant. He’s probably the best attacking scrum-half we’ve got in the UK. But he doesn’t get a sniff, probably because he doesn’t suit England’s game plan. He’s a livewire, but probably can’t bring that control.
It’s this game management that has led Simpson to believe that Youngs and Poortvliet will be more likely to get the nod than the “instinctive” Care.
“Don’t get me wrong, Ben and Jack have the ability to snipe, but their X-factor is being able to put the ball up and conserve the energy of their forwards. We’ve seen a preference towards controlling scrum-halves rather than instinctive ones. I don’t think that’s doing anyone a disservice, because Ben is a fine player on his day.”