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The Scrumhalf Pass

Friday Jul 3, 2009 in Magazine

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By Jackie Finlan

Halfback, inside back, scrummie–no matter what you call them, the scrumhalf is the lynchpin to team chemistry on the field. Number nine may have multiple duties, from knowing the playbook inside and out to reading the defense, but if a scrumhalf can’t execute the play that sets the attack in motion, no amount of knowledge or vision will lead a team to victory.

“The pass from the scrumhalf is so critical,” says Kevin Dalzell, former US Eagle scrumhalf with 42 caps and 109 points (sixth in US history). “It’s the launch pad for every set piece, all phase play, and keeps the pressure on the defense, which is so important.”

Dalzell learned this lesson the hard way. Born in South Africa, he moved to the US when he was 12 and took to American football. When he made the switch to rugby during his senior year of high school, he was pegged as a scrumhalf due to his size (5-foot-8, 170 lbs) and innate understanding of the game. When he first booted up with Old Mission Beach AC (San Diego), he ran like a football player and initially didn’t focus on his passing skills.

When a 17-year-old scrumhalf playing men’s club rugby in southern California is more runner than passer, the potential for injury can go up exponentially. That’s when Ed Ayub, then trainer for the Men’s National Team, pulled Dalzell aside for a chat.

“He told me that if I wanted to last in rugby, I better make sure I get the ball to the big guys,” Dalzell recalls. Lucky for Dalzell, he also had Eagle scrumhalf Mike Saunders as tutor. Saunders, who earned 12 caps in the late 80s, took the young scrumhalf aside after every practice to help him work on his pass.

Dalzell didn’t initially understand the significance of the scrumhalf pass until he saw the trickle-down effect of his errors. “When your scrumhalf’s having a bad day and the flyhalf’s getting bad ball–either too low or he’s stutter-stepping to save a pass–it can ruin what could have been the perfect situation,” relates Dalzell. “No matter what play the team was working on, if that pass isn’t perfect, the play doesn’t come off.”

“For a scrumhalf, repetition is the key,” says US 7s coach Al Caravelli, who manned the position as a player. “That’s the beauty about scrumhalf–anyone dedicated to putting in the time can master it.” And when Caravelli says “dedication,” he’s talking about 500 passes from each hand, five times per week. (The coach’s son, Kyle, a scrumhalf at the University of California, practices what his dad preaches.)

When Caravelli indoctrinates a scrumhalf, he begins with the one-handed passing drill, which lays the foundation for a quick delivery and speedy pass. Caravelli likens it to learning to shoot a basketball–gripping a rugby ball with just the fingertips. This way, the player is forced to pass from the ground, as opposed to picking up or cocking the ball, which slows down the delivery and gives the defense extra time to interfere.

“It’s the drills you hate the most that are most important,” Dalzell says, “and I hated the one-handed drill. It took me six or seven years to feel comfortable with that.” Couple the difficulty of the drill with a player’s less coordinated, weaker hand, and one can understand Dalzell’s frustration. That said, by the time Dalzell was starting for the Eagles in 1996, he actually preferred his non-natural left hand.

“Internationally, it’s common to see a scrumhalf who shows equal strength in their left- and right-hand pass,” Caravelli observes, “but you don’t see that very often with American athletes. It’s so important. I see people standing up to pass all the time, but considering the speed of the game and the number of breakdowns, you have to be able to pass without taking a step back or picking the ball up off the ground.” There are more opportunities to pass with the left hand, so without ambidextrous skills, a scrumhalf will be less successful.

Once a scrumhalf has nailed down the mechanics of the pass (from planting a stable base, to staying low through the follow-through), it’s time to show the pass can be made under pressure. Although game scenarios can never be fully duplicated at training, it’s important to push halfbacks out of their comfort zones, so they’re prepared for a scrum in retreat, a pesky opposite, or pressure at the breakdowns.

One of Caravelli’s favorites is the tire drill, where he hangs a tire from a tree limb and passes the ball through it. As the ball hits the tire, it starts to spin and sway, making precision ever more important.

“I’ve been doing this drill with Kyle since he was 10,” says Caravelli, “and you can make a game out of it. Three points for getting it through the tire, one for hitting it, and minus one for missing.” Players try to beat their scores with less time, thereby increasing the pressure.

Dalzell recalls an interesting drill that was used when he played for French club Montferrand. This drill involved small sand bags and relied on that “almost getting smacked in the face” sensation.

“You know how you flinch when you feel you’re about to be hit? It’s unnerving,” Dalzell explains. “The coach would hit me in the face with a sand bag as I was passing the ball, then after a few passes, he’d stop just short of my face. You were forced to really focus on the pass, and get comfortable with getting hit.”

There are other passes that scrumhalves can incorporate into their repertoire, including the dive and reverse passes, but none are more important than the standard pass from the base of the breakdown. Considering the stakes, it’s easy to see how a mental block or passing slump might occur, and the necessity for getting back on track is paramount.

“It’s usually a small hitch in mechanics that someone on the sideline can point out,” Dalzell says. “But sometimes you just have to run the ball or box kick to get past the line, a little confidence boost, so you can get back in the groove.”

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