Lions Changing Roles: Scrum-Half

Changing Roles looks at the evolution of the game and the players who played it in Lions red from the earliest days of The British & Irish Lions to the present. [more]

Lions Changing Roles: Scrum-Half

Changing Roles looks at the evolution of the game and the players who played it in Lions red from the earliest days of The British & Irish Lions to the present.

In Robert Jones' opinion, the scrum-half is the most influential player on the park.

And as a pivotal member of the first and only Lions side to come from 1-0 down to clinch a Test series, Australia 1989, he knows a thing or two about what it takes to win rugby games.

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Jones was famed for his sharp pass, his laser-guided box kicks and a general’s ability to marshal his forward pack.
And the Welshman, who won 54 caps for his country, says it was that opportunity to run the game that first drew him in – that and he admits, his diminutive stature.
“Size played a part obviously, Gareth Edwards was a massive Welsh hero of mine naturally as I was growing up,” the former Bristol scrum-half said. 

“I was inspired by Gareth and Dave Loveridge, and I liked to be in a position where you could be constantly involved and have a part to play in terms of how the game unfolded.
“At nine you’re basically the conduit between the backs and the forwards, you’re always in the game whether you’re under pressure and your pack is doing well or not.
“Those are the things that attracted me to the position, I was probably naturally in terms of size either going to be a nine or a ten and I think nine appealed to me more so.”

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Though the practice of dividing the half-backs did not begin for certain until the 1900s, Arthur Rotherham – an early specialist scrum-half from Cambridge University – started in the very first Lions Test in 1891, which they won 4-0 against South Africa in Port Elizabeth.
Rotherham was to finish as the series’ top points scorer in a 3-0 Test series win.
Rotherham aside, it is not until 1904 that fly-half and scrum-half are seen definitively as different positions. In the 94 Lions tests since, there has been 35 different starting scrum-halves and of those, Wales is out in front with 13, nine are English, while Ireland have had six and Scotland four.
Three otherwise uncapped scrum-halves have played Test matches for the Lions, English-born George Isherwood in 1910 and Herbert Laxon in 1908, while Cardiff RFC’s Howard Poole started one Test for the Lions in New Zealand in 1930.
The only scrum-half to start a Test out of his normal position was Jimmy Giles at centre against South Africa in 1938, while Englishman Gordon Rimmer – who started at fly-half against Ashburton County-North Otago in 1950 – is the only number nine to start a provincial game in another position since 1930.
England’s Dickie Jeeps leads the way in terms of Lions Test caps, with 13 – second only to the great Willie John McBride on the all-time list.
Arguably the greatest Lions scrum-half sits second to Jeeps on that list. Gareth Edwards played ten Lions tests, winning five, drawing three and losing just twice over three tours in 1968, 1971 and 1974.  
His performances in 1974 provoked McBride to label him “the best scrum-half I have seen, or am ever likely to see.”

Growing boys
Gareth Edwards, or ‘Wee Gareth’ as Willie John called him, was famed for his athleticism. At 5’8” and almost 12st – and punching well above his weight – he was especially physically gifted for a scrum-half of his era. He is considerably bigger than both Ireland’s Colin Patterson and Englishman Arthur Young, who rank as the smallest ever Lions scrum-halves at 5’5”.
Patterson – who started three Tests for the Lions in 1980 – was known for his sharp passing and electrifying pace around the breakdown. Young began the first Test against South Africa in 1924 before injury struck and captain Dr Ronald Cove-Smith was forced to call up Bill Cunningham – an Irish international living in South Africa – who went on to score in the third Test.
At 6’3” and 16st 3lb, Mike Phillips bucked the trend of traditionally diminutive scrum-halves – he is by far the largest and heaviest ever to play for the Lions and is over six stone heavier than the Lions’ lightest ever scrum-half, 9st 9 Herbert Whitley, who also toured in 1924.
Jones explained: “Naturally the game has got more physical in its nature through professionalism, the size of players and defensive systems – that is why bigger scrum-halves have come to the fore.
“Mike Phillips is huge, Conor Murray is a big man, Rhys Webb is quite a big man.
“But there’s still very much a place in the game for the old fashioned nine who is good in terms of his tactical game, his kicking game, who first and foremost can deliver quick quality ball to his backline to give them more time and space in a crowded game.”
1955, 1959 & 1962 – Dickie Jeeps

Legendary Jeeps won four of his 13 Lions Tests, lost eight and drew once as well as having four Lions caps to his name before he turned out for England.
In 1955 he started alongside the great Cliff Morgan in the half-backs and the pair dovetailed perfectly. Jeeps played an integral part in a famous third-Test win over the Springboks at Loftus Versfeld, in which the Lions surprised the host with their kicking tactics.
Their kicking masterclass led to 63 lineouts, which the Lions and all-Welsh front-row Bryn Meredith, Courtney Meredith, and Billy Williams dominated, earning them a famous 9-6 win.
1968, 1971 & 1974 – Gareth Edwards – “What can touch a man like that?”

His country's youngest captain at 20 years and seven months, Edwards turned 21 on his first Lions tour to South Africa in 1968. There, he showed the potential of his partnership with Barry John that would burst into full bloom in New Zealand three years later.

Edwards was pivotal in securing a first – and so far only – Lions series victory in New Zealand in 1971 and although forced off the field by a leg injury in the first Test, he returned for the remainder of the series and produced his finest performance in the third international – the highlight of which was the narrow side break with which he opened the All Blacks up to create a try for Gerald Davies.
In 1974, Edwards returned to South Africa at the peak of his powers and enjoyed an armchair ride behind a forward pack that dominated the Springbok eight from start to finish.
Edwards' displays combined his instinctive eye for a break with the tactical sense to direct operations from behind the relentless advance of his scrum.
1989 & 1993– Robert Jones
Jones followed in compatriot Edwards’ footsteps by becoming a winning Lion in 1989.
Dominated by the Australians in the first Test in Sydney, the tourists Lions went to Brisbane in the second Test in 1989 with a serious mountain to climb and though forwards Mike Teague, Dean Richards and Paul Ackford were exceptional, the scrum-half was crucial in turning the Test series tide.
Jones and half-back partner Rob Andrew took control of the game – no mean feat considering Australia’s half-backs were the pair to guide them to World Cup glory two years later, Nick Farr-Jones and Michael Lynagh.
At 12-9 down with four minutes remaining, it was Jones’ brilliant box-kicking which led to the Lions’ decisive final two tries for Jeremy Guscott and Gavin Hastings.

Jones’ was again instrumental as the Lions sealed a 19-18 final Test win and ultimately allowed the Lions to come from 1-0 behind to clinch a Test series.
 “Obviously there was rivalry, naturally there always is between any position, in particular half-backs because they can have a big impact on the result and the way the game goes,” Jones said of the battle with Lynagh and Farr-Jones.
“If you play well and you make the right decisions, the chances are you will get a positive result, we were aware of that and we couldn’t allow them that sort of control.”
1997, 2001 & 2005 – Matt Dawson
Third-choice behind Rob Howley and Austin Healey when the glorious 1997 tour began, Matt Dawson provided one of the tour’s defining moments.
His over-the-head dummy bamboozled three Springbok forwards and his opposite number Joost van der Westhuizen, allowing him to race over for a last-gasp score that sealed a record 25-16 win at Newlands and set the 1997 Lions on their way to immortality.
It was Guscott’s drop-goal that grabbed the headlines and a series win at King’s Park, but Dawson’s try was equally crucial and will forever have a place in Lions’ folklore.
The England World Cup winner would also go on to tour in 2001 and 2005 in the famous red jersey.
2009 & 2013 – Mike Phillips:
For a Lion who has started five Tests and won three, including a series victory in Australia in 2013, it is ironic that two of Mike Phillips’ best performances came in losing causes.
Phillips was exceptional in pulling the 2009 Lions back into contention from 26-7 down in Durban, including a sniping try, while he was superb again as the Lions suffered a heartbreaking 28-25 loss at Loftus Versfield in the second Test.
Nevertheless, Phillips got his due in Australia where he started both the victorious first and third tests – never one to shy away from the heat of the battle, Phillips outplayed Will Genia in the third Test and his quick tap penalty sent Alex Corbisiero barrelling over for the Lions’ first score that buoyed them on their way to an emphatic 41-16 win in Sydney.

“Mike Phillips probably set the trend initially of a physical presence at nine, someone who can take on opposition back-rows, who defensively have an impact on the game,” Jones said of his compatriot.
“I don’t think he is a one off – most players generally are bigger than they were in the past, but I think if you look at New Zealand, Aaron Smith is not a big man.
“I still think the scrum-half’s key role is to deliver quick, quality ball to the backline, their ability to get the ball away from the breakdown and the set-piece is vital. I don’t think that changed with Mike and I don’t think that should ever change.”

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