A players greatest strength can very quickly become their greatest weakness… rugby365 columnist Jon Harris takes a look at the ‘utility’ back and wonders exactly who benefits from being versatile…
Rugby 365 columnist Jon Harris writes that, the Springbok squad has been announced and Peter de Villiers seems determined to highlight the versatility of his backline players. In fact it appears to be the reason Zane Kirchner has been excluded, his speciality and apparent lack of versatility.
Of course the cynics amongst us are wondering if this is perhaps an excuse to justify his inclusion of Earl Rose in the squad. He’s so versatile, he’s the only player in the Springbok squad AND the Emerging Springbok squad. The man’s very versatile. But that’s another story.
This versatility, is it in the player’s interest or does it stunt his development? More often than not a place is found in a team for a player of prodigious talent. He inevitably, as is expected for someone of unique talent, makes a name for himself. His value to the team is unquestioned and he finds himself playing at different positions almost every outing. Such is his ability that he seems to slot into any position with ease and his value to the team is almost indispensable.
Three such players have attracted attention recently for different reasons, and ironically at different junctures in their careers. Francois Steyn of South Africa, Tom May and Ben Foden both of England have featured in prospective line ups as utility players. Perhaps Steyn is the best known of the three, so let’s have a quick look at his situation.
He made the Bok team as a precocious 19 year-old and made an enormous impact on the International stage. He could play wing, centre, fullback and flyhalf, although he seemed to be least comfortable at 10 at Test level. The pace was just a tad too quick and he was caught out once or twice. Nevertheless, he is the subject of much speculation as to what his best position may be, and we all seem to be in the dark as to what that may be.
Ben Foden is a scrumhalf who moved to fullback and is filling the wing berth in Martin Johnson’s England team. Almost like Austin Healy, who became an accomplished utility International.
Tom May, a wing, played centre for England about seven years ago and never quite made the grade. This year at the tender age of 30, after playing fullback and now flyhalf, he has made the England squad as utility cover for the backline.
So the trend is there. Take a versatile player and move him around as you need so that he can cover a number of positions on your bench.
Who is best served by this ploy? Is it fair to take someone who is clearly ahead of his time in raw talent and shunt him from one position to the next just because he has the rare ability to migrate seamlessly from one position to position? Young talent is a funny thing. It’s adaptable, resilient and exuberant. A coach can almost do what he wants with it, as the player is malleable.
As he becomes older, he does not enjoy that same flexibility as a player and the value as a utility is lost. He is then forced to be judged on his merits in a specific position, normally the one where he has filled in the most times. We all know that experience makes a better player of us all, no matter what level we participate. Blur those lines by moving the individual from position to position and you deprive him of the opportunity to specialise and gain valuable know-how which inevitably is the reward of playing regularly in a position and a team.
Have a look at the great All Black centre Tana Umaga. He was such a unique talent his first number of tests for New Zealand were at wing. Once he was allowed to settle into his natural position of centre, he became the best of his generation.
Depriving a player of the opportunity to specialise, gifts his contemporaries or challengers the chance, through gaining experience, to narrow the gap between his and their talent. As an example, should Frans Steyn have stayed at centre, he may well by now have elevated himself to the best centre in South Africa. Instead all contenders in that position, be it de Villiers, Jacobs, Olivier or Fourie have been allowed to specialise and are automatic choices ahead of him. Admittedly, the examples used are not fair to the individuals. They’re all enormously talented.
In short, the International career of a young utility players is short. Ironically, the reverse seems to extend the careers of some when they get older, eg Healy, Mike Catt and Stefan Terblanche.
Tom May is by contrast, the type of investment which pays dividends later in his career. Now as he enters the mature stage of his playing career, he offers club and country the luxury of someone who can slot in at virtually any position in the backline, with the wisdom of his journeyman years. That is perhaps the ideal. That said – even May now claims to want to once again settle, ironically back at inside centre.
Yet is it fair to perhaps curtail an especially talented player’s development just because the call of franchise/club and country is that he should be exploited as a utility player? His prodigious young talent would be allowed to blossom in one position as opposed to gaining insight and experience across a broader base but not quite being allowed to master any one of them.
Steyn is a perfect example. He should be allowed to focus on fullback. The position caters for his unique talents, ie his penchant for counter attack and for breaking a line.He can even engage in his passion for 60 metre drop kicks.
Percy Montgomery is perhaps a fine comparison for Steyn. He made his debut at centre for the Boks, played at flyhalf, but once given the mantle of first choice fullback, settled down and developed into the best of the modern South African era.
On the whole, when an especially talented player forces himself onto the International stage, the temptation to use him in as many positions as necessary should be resisted. He will deliver a far greater return if he is afforded some time to develop in his preferred position. Yes, the desire of the individual to play at the highest level is so great he’ll probably play prop if he’s a flyhalf, but mature man management is required in the long term interests of both parties.
The utility player’s greatest strength, his versatility, more often than not becomes his weakness, his lack of speciality.Tweet