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Return of the flamboyant fly-half: daring No 10s are back in fashion

The Guardian logo The Guardian 18/04/2019 Paul Rees
Danny Cipriani with a football ball on a field: Danny Cipriani has been a difference maker for Gloucester this season. © Getty Images Danny Cipriani has been a difference maker for Gloucester this season.

It has been a season when number 10s have come back in from the outside. This weekend’s European Champions Cup semi-finals will, if Joey Carbery recovers from a hamstring to spearhead Munster against Saracens, be instances of masters and apprentices.

Owen Farrell, the England captain and one of the most influential figures in the European game, will be at outside-half for Saracens and Carbery, the successor to Johnny Sexton as Ireland’s 10, will if fit play opposite him. The pair are contrasting pivots: Farrell looks to dictate through his side’s gameplan, armed with a pattern-weaver outside him in Alex Goode, while Carbery is the arch-opportunist, at his most dangerous in broken play.

On Sunday Sexton is set to make his first appearance since the end of the Six Nations when Leinster face Toulouse in Dublin. It has been a stop-start campaign for World Rugby’s player of the year, but he has long had a sense of occasion. In contrast, Toulouse’s outside-half for much of the season, Romain Ntamack, is a 19-year-old who made his debut for France during the recent Six Nations.

French teams can be as unpredictable in selection as they are in performance. Toulouse, the Top 14 leaders, won a crazy match at home to Clermont Auvergne last weekend, 47-44, to seal their place in the play-offs. Ntamack was on the bench with Antoine Dupont, his half-back partner in the Six Nations, playing at 10.

The game has evolved to the point where an outside-half who poses an attacking threat is once more a premium product: injuries caused by relentless collisions have, if belatedly, prompted a recalibration, aided by law tweaks and refereeing interpretations. Wales have come to prefer Gareth Anscombe to Dan Biggar, Joe Simmonds is getting more starts for Exeter, George Ford is resembling the fly half who came through the ranks at Leicester, Marcus Smith is developing at Harlequins and Finn Russell has added a touch of daring to the Top 14.

Munster’s Joey Carbery is at his most dangerous in broken play. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/INPHO/Rex/Shutterstock © INPHO/REX/Shutterstock Munster’s Joey Carbery is at his most dangerous in broken play. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/INPHO/Rex/Shutterstock

And there is Danny Cipriani who has made a difference at Gloucester this season, if not enough to convince the England head coach, Eddie Jones, to take him back. Jones said earlier this season that Cipriani’s ability to conjure a move to confound the tightest defence did not outweigh other areas of his game, unspecified, that he needed to work on.

A highlights reel was not enough, said Jones. The reel deal? Perhaps one of the things Cipriani needs to work on is his relationship with Farrell. Even if the World Cup was not looming, does it make sense for Jones to keep a potential match-winner at a distance at a time when the game has reached a point where outside-halves are no longer the functionaries they were a decade ago.

Not many games are won now by kicking more penalties than the opposition. Exeter have scored 94 tries in the Premiership and Europe this season while kicking 14 penalties, and if they are an extreme example, the dearth of drop goals in the league – Freddie Burns kicked the second of the season for Bath at Gloucester last weekend – shows how, in general, teams have come to regard three points as a meagre reward.

Cipriani, as he demonstrated against Bath when he looked to the wide outside before feeding Josh Hohneck with a short pass having just moved his head the other way, has a worth it is surprising Jones feels he can do without. Being high profile means he comes with more baggage than most, but were Jones coaching his native Australia and Cipriani qualified for the Wallabies, would the man who gave Matt Giteau his chance have his face turned the other way?

When Jones’s assistant coach John Mitchell was in charge of New Zealand, he showed faith in Carlos Spencer, an outside-half more maverick than Cipriani (who also ended up at Gloucester). Jones has spent the last three years stressing the traditional strengths of English rugby, set-pieces, defence and organisation, but will they be enough in a World Cup that has Argentina and France in their group?

a man holding a ball: Carlos Spencer was even more maverick than Cipriani. Photograph: Nigel Marple/Getty Images © Getty Images Carlos Spencer was even more maverick than Cipriani. Photograph: Nigel Marple/Getty Images

Argentina reached the semi-finals in 2015 after broadening their vision. If not much has gone for them since, part of the reason is their refusal, until now, to consider players who were not based in the country and playing for the Jaguares. Overseas players will now be picked without restrictions, making the likes of Facundo Isa, Nicolás Sánchez and Santiago Cordero available to play in Japan.

France are coming off the back of yet another Six Nations in which they veered between dire and dreadful away from Paris. Yet there were signs of green shoots, a tilt towards Toulouse who this season have rediscovered their taste for adventure. England, as Jones has acknowledged, are a team that struggles when a plan is not working. They flounder when the tide goes out, which makes the omission of someone like Cipriani for most of the last 40 months all the more surprising, the time when options can be maximised.

In his one start under Jones, Cipriani was used sparingly in the Cape Town rain but still produced a play that sealed victory. In the seven-point era, outside-halves are like an American football quarterback, the tactical hub and playmaker. With more teams becoming adept at generating quick ball at the breakdown, slow forwards at first receiver trundling into a challenge are a hazard.

This weekend’s semi-finals should showcase the importance of the position. Farrell and Sexton, Lions both, have long set the tune for their sides; Carbery and Ntamack are bold players who, despite their relative inexperience, are not afraid of making a mistake.

The best outside-halves wait for their moment, versed in the art of deception, not reliant on a playbook.

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