What it takes to be a great No 8 – and my three to watch
The scrum is the best attacking platform in the game. I cannot understand why No 8s don’t make more of it
The role of a No 8 is fundamentally simple: get over the advantage line. Whether it is in the tight or the loose, you are the team’s go-to man. Your job is to smash, step or slide your way over that imaginary, but all-important line.
Do that consistently and you are halfway towards becoming a good No 8. There are plenty of battering rams out there who do just that. It is all the added ingredients – the game intelligence, building relationships with your half-backs and being able actually to play – that are needed to become a great No 8.
Kieran Read has led the way in that regard for several years. You very rarely see him make a bad decision, which is an exceptional quality in itself, but what sets him apart are his hands, as soft and subtle as any back’s. How often do you see him pop up in those wide channels to give the scoring pass?
He terrifies defences. The opposition actually run off him when he hits the defensive line because they know what he is capable of on the point of contact, when he can use his arms to get an offload over the top.
The other guy who has impressed me recently is Louis Picamoles. I like the go-forward he gives France. I like the way he tries things, always looking to offload. He is constantly challenging the defence. In those two warm-up games against England, he was the best player on the pitch and I am expecting big things from him at this World Cup.
Ben Morgan is the third No 8 who I am looking for. He was not at his best against Fiji and is still short of a gallop or two after his broken leg, but once he hits his stride he is such an intelligent footballer.
Read, Picamoles and Morgan: those are the three No 8s I will be keeping a particularly close eye on.
Billy Vunipola seemed to have gone off the boil during the warm-up games. I felt he was standing far too stationary, so he was running only once he got the ball. To be at his most effective, he needs to hit the ball at speed and potentially drag someone with him such as Chris Robshaw so he has got the force to punch a big hole in the defence.
I always felt a particular responsibility to do that on first phase from a scrum. I played with some great front rowers during my career – Steve McDowall, Sean Fitzpatrick, Richard Loe, Olo Brown and Craig Dowd to name a few. I understood and respected how much work they put into scrummaging so I felt that I had a particular duty to them to reward their efforts.
My goal was that I wanted the tight forwards coming out of a scrum looking forwards, not backwards or sideways. I always had that picture in my head every time I picked up the ball. Psychologically that makes a big difference, but it is just as crucial for your supporting players to be running on to you rather than having to circle backwards. On the occasions I did not manage to do that the tight-five boys would say: “Zinny, you have one job to do and you can’t even do that.”
The most important relationship a No 8 has is with his scrum-half. People often overlook the importance of the combination as a unit of No 8, No 9 and No 10. They are the cement between the forwards and the backs.
Communication and timing are essential. Those ingredients generally come from playing together, so you come to know each other’s cues and ticks. I was blessed to play with three wonderful scrum-halves in David Kirk, Graeme Bachop and Justin Marshall. With all of them, we forged that understanding pretty quickly, so I knew where and when they would be when I picked up.
It helps if you have a gobby scrumhalf. I know they get on most people’s nerves, but I like my No 9s to boss the forwards. It gives the tight five the leadership and direction they need. You need that leadership quality from No 9s and whether you are at eight, nine or 10 you need to keep that level of chat up throughout the match.
Not all the communication has to be verbal. Sometimes it can be as simple as the scrum-half giving you a tap on the backside or having a prearranged signal. My trigger point used to be when the ball touched my foot.
At a scrum I would normally be positioned between the lock and the openside flanker and I would be looking under my right shoulder to where I would hope the full-back would be. Christian Cullen stood on the left, but he was a one-off who was so fast he would be on to my pass like a rocket every time.
Of course, your scrum will not be going forward every time and that is where you need to have a bit of footballing nous to control the ball at the base. If your scrum is suffering, you need to get it out of there as quickly as possible – unlike England on Friday night when they were trying to milk penalties. That often means making decisions regardless of whether it is in your game plan or not. It is your responsibility to make calculated decisions.
The vast majority of those principles of No 8 play are the same today as they were in my day. What disappoints me is that is the way that the scrum is no longer used as an attacking platform. Too many teams focus on the scrum as a means of gaining penalties. It is boring.
The scrum is the single best attacking platform there is in the game. The line-out is a lot tighter because the defence is more spread out and it is also very hard to create an attacking platform off a ruck. I cannot understand why teams and No 8s do not make more of the opportunity the scrum presents.
Nor do you see as many attacking moves on the blind side any more, where you combine with your scrum-half and full-back down the short side. It is such a simple move but if it is executed properly it is so hard to defend.
In fact, the last time I actually saw it done properly was by Morgan against New Zealand when England were on their own line. It probably was not pre-planned but he went up the short side and I thought: “Bloody hell that’s good.”
I just hope that more No 8s at this World Cup remember that the scrum is an opportunity to ask questions. Do not just let your scrum-half box-kick possession away – use a bit of imagination, a bit of variety, a bit of flair to really hurt the opposition defence.