The Welsh ascendancy is over. With a hell-for-leather victory over England in Cardiff this weekend Welsh rugby can, for the first time in a generation, call itself the dominant force of these Isles.
But it was also the biggest stage to date for a host of players to state their case for inclusion in the first 15 when the British and Irish Lions lock horns with South Africa at ABSA Park in Durban on June 20. Judging by this weekend, a host of the Wales players can start privately calling themselves a Lion.
Whilst competition has increased in some positions and resided in others, there is none more open and subject to speculation than the position of scrum-half.
Whoever is chosen, the biggest challenge of their career awaits them. If the Lions are to succeed they will have to find somebody to can compete with the standard-bearer of the scrum half position- Fourie Du Preez.
Throughout South Africa’s 2007 World Cup triumph, Du Preez was arguably a more influential figure than Butch James, South Africa’s fly-half. As well as tigerish defence, cheetah-like pace and hyena-like trickery, he possesses a bullet for a pass, fizzes with energy and struts around the base of the pack with an authority bordering on arrogance.
One moment in the World Cup Final embodied Du Preez’s tournament. Facing Andy Gomarsall, he shaped for a box kick at the base of a ruck. As Gomarsall tried to charge him down, he flicked the ball from his one outstretched arm to the other, spun like a ballerina and broke into the vacated space, causing pandemonium in the English defence. It was a breathtakingly audacious and fluently executed exhibition of skill and reminded everyone why they call it a “dummy.”
The good news is Lion’s Coach Ian McGeechan is spoilt for choice at scrum half. There are likely to be three seats on the plane, and at least eight players haven’t as yet made additional holiday plans.
Mike Blair, a nominee for IRB International Player of the Year in 2008 and Scottish captain, began as the frontrunner for one of those spaces before the Six Nations kicked off, although he hasn’t played as well as he would have liked in the opening two games. The relative Irish newcomer Tomas O’Leary impressed in Ireland’s victory over Italy with his alertness and decision-making, and has had a good season playing for Munster. In some quarters, he is being talked of as a shoe-in despite lacking the big game experience necessary for the Lions.
However, Saturday’s game at the Millennium stadium showcased the two contenders most likely to claim the jersey and face the Boks- Mike Phillips and Harry Ellis.
After missing so much of last season, Phillips has done remarkably well to put himself back in contention. Standing at more than 6 ft tall, the Osprey is an atypical scrum-half with a big personality. He tackles like a back-row, and his physical presence and imposing character can unsettle opponents.
He is also a dynamic carrier of the ball (he ran with the ball more times than any other player apart from his captain Martyn Williams on Saturday), has mastered the art of the offload and can definitely shift. Inevitably due to his size, he lacks pace from a standing start and could release the ball quicker in the pass. Phillips is undoubtedly a graceful player who can turn matches when on song, but he may be the rugby equivalent of Dimitar Berbatov. There is a fine line between graceful and languorous.
Harry Ellis is a far more classical scrum-half. Small and compact with a low centre of gravity, he hits the gaps with lightning acceleration. He has a lovely, fluid running style, keeps the ball in two hands and his head up while he looks for support runners. Unlike other contenders, his passing is always accurate and his box kicks are second to none. He has had a stop-start international career plagued with injuries and false dawns, but has occasionally played like a world-beater. If he gets an extended run in the side, he could be the first player since Matt Dawson to lay claim to England’s scrum half position.
There was precious little to choose between them over the weekend. Phillips has undoubted presence, carrying ability and revelled in the close quarter exchanges, but his decision making wasn’t always exemplary.
Ellis didn’t make as many breaks as he would have liked, but when he did he was incisive. He managed to keep his own in a highly physical game and make a real nuisance of himself. He may not have the potential destructive powers of Phillips, but he is a better decision maker and a bigger leader.
If the Lions have any chance of overwhelming South Africa they must disturb the link between their domineering forwards and backs, and that means neutralising Du Preez. To do that, they will need a scrum-half in the form of his life, with the aggression required to play Du Preez at his own game, the nous to try the unexpected and the guile to pull it off. It is a position so reliant on instinct and confidence that game-time, consistent selection and faith from the management is required.
McGeechan, therefore, will need to make a choice and back that choice. It will mean disappointing worthy players, and resisting calls to chop and change as soon as the chosen player makes a mistake or shows signs of subservience. As much as anything, it will be a serious test of McGeechan’s man management skills.
For my money, I don’t think he trusts Blair, and I don’t think he will be able to make a decision between Ellis and Phillips’ contrasting skill sets. He will start with Phillips, who is the more raw of the two, and then give Ellis a run at the business end of the tour.