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Sevens Positions: Playing Scrumhalf

Sevens rugby is a highly specialised game once one has reached a certain level. Our specialist Dallen Stanford is working his way through the qualities needed in each Sevens position and had started with the forwards, covering playing prop in sevensandplaying hooker in sevens- here the latest article, some excellent insight on scrumhalf play in Sevens.

The YouTube example used for this article is from the Dubai IRB Sevens final of 2006. Both scrumhalves in this clip are amongst my favourites – Stefan Basson (South Africa) and Nigel Hunt (New Zealand). Despite the weather conditions this is one of the great finals, showcasing a game of two halves, dominated by each team.

The skills required to play number 9 (which is technically number 4 in sevens) often mean the player could be one of the team’s kickers – which applies to both scrumhalves in this final. In fact, Basson is the top scorer in this Dubai tournament with 72 points, with Hunt in second place on 42.

Link to clip below, to which I will point out examples in the text that follows:

Video 1

What is required to play scrumhalf?
Generally a scrumhalf is one of the most skilful players on the field, and has great fitness. The scrumhalf could be a flyhalf, scrumhalf or wing in XVs rugby. Obviously many of these statements are eneralizations, but based on my own experience in sevens. Personally, until playing sevens for America, I had never played scrumhalf. While this was daunting, especially going up against the best number 9s in the world, it is a position one can learn overtime. It also highlights the fact that one can play several different positions in sevens, which often makes that player a greater asset for the team.

The set pieces largely involve the scrumhalf, and are vital to the success of that position.

Kickoffs kicked: Sometimes the kicker in the team is the scrumhalf, who will then drop back to play sweeper after the kick is taken. We will go over the role of the sweeper in more detail via another article.

If the scrumhalf isn’t kicking, then off the kickoff he/she lines up next to the three forwards. The scrumhalf can either stay in the same defensive line as the rest of the team when the ball is kicked, or he/she can be slightly ahead of the team and align in-between the opposition scrumhalf and flyhalf. This may force the opposition to take the ball straight into contact, or throw an intercept pass if you’re very lucky.

While we have the use of the above clip, I will point out other items that have been mentioned in previous articles. For example, at 20 minutes 45 seconds, this showcases the importance of winning kick restarts and proves to be the catalyst for this decisive try. SA retains an excellent kickoff through Jonathan Mokwena and it is Tobela Mdaka who scores with a great switch directly from it. One has to love the try celebration afterwards as well - Kenyan style!

Kickoffs received: The scrumhalf stands on the side of the field to which the team is most likely going to kick too, lining up on the 22m line near the touchline. Once your forwards receive the ball, and there is pressure on them, the safest option is to setup a ruck right away. From there the ball can go wide, unless you are on your own tryline, and opt for a clearance kick.

Lineout’s: With the quick lineout rule it means teams can keep possession a lot easier than risk a regular lineout. However, a well-executed lineout provides a great attacking platform with the opposition defense being so far away.

The scrumhalf is largely responsible for the success of the lineouts by reading the opposition lineout during the game. The scrumhalf has two types of lineout throws he/she can use:
(1) If the ball is going to the front of the lineout (at the 5m mark) a fast bullet type throw is highly recommended. This is generally the safest lineout throw if your team gets a good lift for its jumper.
(2) If the ball is going to the back of the lineout an arched type of lob throw is used. This is of course a lot more dangerous as it requires superb technique not to over-throw the ball, or have a skew lineout called. But on the positive side, it allows for an excellent attacking platform, especially with the opposition backline 10m away.

As mentioned in previous positions, the more dynamic a team or player is, the better the results. The lineout has other varieties: the quick throw-in without the lineout being formed; throwing to a single player who jumps for the ball – either in the front or right at the back of the lineout. Other options
include the lineout jumper throwing the ball straight back to the scrumhalf, who then streaks down the touchline. Watch at the 26 minutes 43 seconds mark. This is a great example by SA with a throw to the front and then back to scrumhalf Basson, who burns through for a dramatic score.

Scrums: When on attack the timing of putting the ball into the scrum is very important. To simplify things, the ball can be put in on the ‘engage’ call from the referee, or when the hooker signals to the scrumhalf. This signal is normally a tap on the props shoulder, closest to the scrumhalf. If the
opposition are pushing early in the scrum, then a ‘tap’ call is recommended. This may also result in a penalty for your side, as teams are not allowed to push before the ball is in.

The scrumhalf needs to communicate with the hooker to ensure the required hook is presented. A small or shallow hook of the ball may leave it lying right at the base of the scrum, making it very difficult for the scrumhalf to feed the backline. An example of this is at 6 minutes 23 seconds: NZ push slightly early in the scrum without the halfback putting the ball in. The hook is then not deep enough and the result is a turnover for SA’s Basson. Incidentally Hunt must have said something to the referee after that scrum as he is yellow carded and spends 2 minutes in the bin. Luckily no points are scored against NZ during this time period.

If the scrum wheels slightly and the hook is shallow, a blindside break can be very effective. Watch the above clip at 9 minutes 15 seconds for this example. This hook is shallow which leads to Hunt going to the short side, which on a dry surface could have been very dangerous for SA.

The opposition scrumhalf is normally standing right on you on a defensive scrum; hence the most successful hookers try hooking the ball back several meters. This makes it a lot easier to get the ball to the flyhalf. It doesn’t matter how the ball gets there: a flick, slap pass, reverse pass or even a kick. In fact, watch 24 minutes 25 seconds in which it is classic scrumhalf play by Basson who uses his boot to kick the ball from the base of the scrum to his number 10.

Now watch 13 minutes 24 seconds: This is a very good example of a deep strike at scrum time, giving the scrumhalf plenty of time to deliver the ball to his flyhalf, which Hunt decides against in this play.

Defense: The role of the scrumhalf during a defensive scrum is to often put as much pressure on his/her opposite number. The closer the opposition hooks the ball to the scrum the better chance for this disruption. The important thing is to stay low and once the opposition scrumhalf is pushed or tackled to the ground they will have to release the ball. If the ball does make it cleanly to the flyhalf the role of the scrumhalf is then to protect the blindside, followed by dropping back to the sweeper position.

As mentioned in ‘playing hooker’ in the rare situation where a defensive scrum occurs on the far left hand side of the field, the hooker sometimes switches with the scrumhalf/sweeper. This allows the scrumhalf/sweeper to break out of the scrum, check the blindside, and then move back to become the sweeper. The hooker who is now playing defense at scrumhalf and can then pressure the opposition scrumhalf, and once he/she passes the ball, join the defensive line.

On a defensive lineout the role of the scrumhalf is to protect the touchline – which Hunt doesn’t do in the example shown already (26 minutes 43 seconds). Once the scrumhalf sees that the ball is spun wide, he/she then moves into that sweeper position.

Attack: The scrumhalf is the link between the forwards and the backline, and is often one of the best supporting players. The halfback is generally small by statue, but clever and creative. Watch 10 minutes 2 seconds in the above clip:
Penalty to NZ, with Hunt starting the movement. His inside support lines are excellent and receives the ball twice as he crosses for a brilliant score. Nigel Hunt was one of the strongest scrumhalves of his time, which means he can take players on physically and often busts through. Here at 3 minutes 35 seconds Hunt shows great strength and speed to make an outside break leading up to NZ’s first try.

Also in this video at 18 minutes 36 seconds: Watch this passage of play for two pieces of brilliant ruck play. The first one is a counter ruck from NZ’s DJ Forbes who uses his strength to remove Bok Jonathan Mokuena and win the ball. Then Bok Ryno Benjamin reads the play beautifully (the tackled player was not held) and steals it back for SA at the next breakdown.

Best scrumhalves in the world?
Some of my favourite scrumhalves of all time include: Samoa’s Uale Mai, New Zealander Tomasi Cama, Fiji’s Emosi Mucago, USA’s Nese Malifa and of course South Africa’s Renfred Dazel. All of these players have superior fitness, speed, skill, decision-making, great form on defense – especially at the difficult position of sweeper – and amazing support play. Above all, they posses the ability to change a game single handedly.

Watch this highlight clip to see NZ’s Tomasi Cama (number 6) in action:

Watch this highlight clip to see Samoa’s Uale Mai (number 6) in action:

Watch this highlight clip to see South Africa’s Renfred Dazel (number 7) in action:


 Are you a scrumhalf?
Skills are high on this list of requirements – passing well off both hands, being able to throw accurately into the lineout, and get dirty ball from a scrum to the flyhalf. Fitness is essential and speed of course is a huge plus, which helps tremendously in making breaks and supporting ball carriers. Being consistent at set pieces is vital, to ensure 100% ball retention from both scrums and lineout’s.

written by: Dallen Stanford played 7s for the USA from 2006 to 2009, including 13 IRB tournament appearances and the 2009 Sevens World Cup. He currently resides in Austin Texas, writes several rugby columns (www.RugbyZone.com; www.UR7s.com; www.RugbyIQ.com, www.PakisCorner.com) and works for the Tackling Cancer Foundation (www.TacklingCancer.org).

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