Zin­zan Brooke

What it takes to be a great No 8 – and my three to watch

The Daily Telegraph - Rugby World Cup - - Front Page - ZIN­ZAN BROOKE

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.

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