Fly-halves are glamour boys of rugby but scrum-halves are more important - so why are they the lowest earners?

Annual salary cap report from English Premiership is baffling – No 9s should be nowhere near the bottom of clubs’ payroll
France scrum-half Antoine Dupont is unlikely to be among the lowest earners at Toulouse. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)France scrum-half Antoine Dupont is unlikely to be among the lowest earners at Toulouse. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)
France scrum-half Antoine Dupont is unlikely to be among the lowest earners at Toulouse. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

A very odd statistic caught my eye yesterday. The annual salary cap report for last year’s English Premiership revealed that fly-halves were the best-paid players with a salary just over £217,000. No great surprise there, fly-halves being often, even usually, the glamour boys of the game. No what astonished me was the revelation that, position-wise, their scrum-half partners came bottom of the table with an average salary of £132,590. Given the importance of the scrum-half this seems bizarre. Is it an English thing? I can’t suppose that Antoine Dupont is one of the lower-paid players at Toulouse or Jamieson Gibson-Park at Leinster.

How to account for it? You might say that few scrum-halves ever play the full 80 minutes and consequently the average number 9 salary level is lower because the replacement 9 is on a lower wage than the first-choice one. Fair enough, but the same could surely be said of hookers and props, almost none of who is ever on the field for the full match. No, I’m mystified.

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To my mind the number 9 is the most important player in any team. He makes more decision that anyone else, and it is the only position in the back division that requires a true specialist. You can shift fly-halves and centres, wings and full-backs – wings and centres too – but, as a rule, your number 9 can be effectively replaced only by another scrum-half.

Admittedly, in France it is not unusual for a player to alternate between 9 and 10, but players who do this successfully are usually primarily scrum-halves. Here in Scotland Greig Laidlaw was capped at both 9 and 10, but while he was a pretty good fly-half one never doubted that he was first of all, and properly, a scrum-half.

About 20 years ago Italy’s coach made a bizarre selection for a match at Twickenham. He moved Mauro Bergamasco from flanker to scrum-half. Now Bergamasco was a superb player, the brightest star in Italian rugby then and certainly one of the two or three best opensides in the Six Nations. But the experiment was, as many predicted, a disaster. You might as well ask Lionel Messi to act as goal-keeper or Jimmy Anderson to keep wicket.

Scotland has always been well-served at scrum-half, no matter where we were otherwise weak. There were good one in the 60s and 70s: Eck Hastie and Dunky Paterson, Dougie Morban and Alan Lawson, but the last two decades of the last century gave us two great ones: Roy Laidlaw and Gary Armstrong, key figures in our two Grand Slams while Gary also captained the team that won the last Five Nations title in 1999. I wouldn’t like to say which was better. Roy, who also played all four Test for the Lions in New Zealand in 1983 and is of course inseparable in memory from his fly-half partner John Rutherford. They went together, as Bill McLaren said, like ham-and eggs, and I daresay that in Toulouse today a similar French culinary combination may be applied to Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack. Roy had as sharp a blindside break as any 9 I can recall while Gary, a Border terrier in his youth, finished his career as the complete scrum-half. You would be mad to think of putting a scrum-half like him at the bottom of the payroll.

Even in this our present too often disappointing century we have always been well-served at scrum-half. There were years of competition between Mike Blair, Chris Cusiter and, later, Rory Lawson, all players who brightened what was often an otherwise gloomy afternoon. Then came the Little General Greig Laidlaw, a 9 one never remembers seeing ruffled. Now we have competition between Ali Price, a member of the last Lions Tests, George Horne and Ben White. As with Blair, Cusiter and Rory Lawson, I find it hard to choose between them. Moreover there is Glasgow’s young Jamie Dobie snapping on their heels. One thing seems clear to me: none of them should be anywhere near the bottom of their clubs payroll. There has never in my memory been a great – or even very good team without a star player at number 9. Others may be more flashy, but the scrum-half is the controlling intelligence of all successful teams.

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