Bennie Osler, Hansie Brewis, Keith Oxlee, Piet Visagie and more recently Naas Botha – all match-winning flyhalves and legends of South African rugby.
Yet, in 30 years from now who of the professional era will be classified as Springbok legends? Joel Stransky perhaps, if only for THAT drop-goal in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final. But who else since 1992, asks Jacques van der Westhuyzen of IOL.?
There have been many players in the last 16 years to wear the No10 shirt, among them Henry Honiball, Braam van Straaten, Louis Koen, André Pretorius, Derick Hougaard and Butch James, but will they go down in the annals as legends. The answer most likely is No.
Now the Springboks have turned to a scrumhalf to wear the No 10 jersey. Ruan Pienaar follows the trend set by the Australians, who in the last couple of years first transformed a fullback, Stephen Larkham, into a flyhalf and more recently moved Matt Giteau from centre to flyhalf.
Across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand’s Dan Carter started out at centre, but made his name at flyhalf, only to be shifted back to No12.
Call it what you want – outside half, flyhalf, stand-off, first five-eighth or pivot – the position remains the most sacred of them all. But is it still as important as in the days of Oxlee, Botha and Co?
And are flyhalves still the “special ones” in a rugby team, or has the modern game turned them, simply, into the link between backs and forwards? After all, flyhalves are not the only playmakers in a rugby team; scrumhalves do it, centres do it, fullbacks do it, and the loose forwards are often the first receivers.
It’s also important to ask, now that Pienaar has been selected as South Africa’s first choice pivot, does this country have a problem producing Test-quality No 10s? And what is the role of the flyhalf anyway?
In a nutshell: He is the dictator and the decision-maker. He’s got to have tactical awareness, good vision and the ability to read the game. He’s got to vary his play to keep the opposition guessing. He’s also got to have high skill levels with the football, supporting the ball-carrier and out-stripping the defence with raw pace.
The difference today compared to yesteryear is noticeable. In the old days the flyhalf would do much more kicking on attack, often to touch where there was at least an even chance of winning the line-out. Now the rules are against that. The game is much more structured along defensive lines and the flyhalf is no longer protected game. Botha, for example, seldom tackled and was seldom tackled.
In a much more in-your-face game, the modern flyhalf must be a much more rugged player than ever.
Pienaar has all the right credentials, so why the big fuss about him being the new ‘general’?
Bok coach Peter de Villiers has said Pienaar is the “natural footballer” to complete his backline and complement the Boks’ new style of play.
While Stransky is all for Pienaar getting time in the No 10 jersey, saying the modern game requires coaches to think out of the box, Lions boss and backline coaching expert Eugene Eloff believes rugby hasn’t changed so dramatically that it needs to rethink the flyhalf.
Says Stransky: “The game is far more structured and planned than it was 30, 40 years ago. The modern game requires all 15 players to be multi-talented. The game has evolved quite a bit from Naas’ time to my time to today.
“Scrumhalves are kicking more and there are other players doing the goal-kicking. Flyhalves are certainly not the dominant players they once were, but that’s because of the type of player that’s needed in the modern game.”
While Eloff concedes a lot of the play once handled by the flyhalf is now done by the scrumhalf and inside centre, he says the No 10 remains the key man in the team.
“The flyhalf remains the dictator and initiator of play. He’s the one man who must be able to handle the pressure.” But is there a dearth in South Africa of quality No 10s, seeing that Pienaar is the ‘chosen one’?
“No,” says Stransky. “We’ve got great flyhalves, like Butch, Morne Steyn, Peter Grant and I think Pienaar will be very special in the position, it’s just that their roles in the team are different to what they used to be.”
With so little time to make decisions, it’s much tougher being a flyhalf today and, therefore, the really classy ones are very rare. As Eloff says, “every era produces only a few stars.”Tweet