The death of the Welsh fly-half production line
February 11, 2014
What has happened to the production line of great Welsh fly-halves? © PA Photos
The first time I ever saw Jonathan Davies play was on television - Neath versus I'm not sure who. Shaping to take a conventional 22-metre drop-out he dummied, tapped the ball off the outside of his right foot, re-gathered and ran the length of the field leaving defenders scattered in his path to score at the other end.
It was a moment of true attacking genius and marked him out at an early age as a worthy successor to the long line of wonderful Welsh fly-halves that had gone before. Little did we know then, they were actually a dying breed.
Max Boyce wrote a song about the fabled Fly-Half Factory back in the 70s: 'It's built beneath the mountain, beneath the coal and clay. It's where we make the outside halves that'll play for Wales one day.'
Fly-halves seemed to personify Welsh rugby at that time. Barry John was actually nicknamed 'King John' but they all played as if they ruled their domain. They were the playmakers and it was their job to dominate and torment opponents.
If you were good enough, you wanted to claim the No.10 jersey and there really did appear to be a conveyor belt somewhere in the valleys that churned out these special players - usually small in stature but able to weave their magic to such effect they were the giants of the game.
Through my school days Cliff Morgan was recognised as perhaps the most exciting attacking runner in the UK and then between 1967 and 1974 I played for Wales with three different No. 10s - John, Dai Watkins and Phil Bennett, all players who were able to transform a game with their ability to rip defences apart, particularly if we were under the cosh. They were all decent kickers but they will always be remembered most for their running. How Wales needed somebody like that last weekend.
Of course the game has changed; outside-halves no longer just have to evade their opposite number and a marauding open-side - they have to face blanket defences and they definitely have less space in which to operate but the special ones still pose a running threat. Dan Carter is the supreme example and although his magic is fading Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett are starting to look the part.
In Wales, though, the conveyor belt has ground to a halt and Warren Gatland appears to have no appetite to get it running again. Stephen Jones was at least a wonderful organiser and kicker although he posed little threat as runner but Rhys Priestland does not even offer that.
He has now played 27 times for his country but, with his boyish demeanour and innate modesty, he still looks as if he is not sure whether he should be on the field. The one element he clearly lacks is a touch of arrogance and I would argue that is essential in an outside-half.
Why was James Hook left kicking his heels on the bench © Getty Images
In recent years Wales have had a decent pack of forwards and the biggest set of backs in their history. It would have been crazy not to take advantage of this unique situation but, with Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins in decline, there are signs that it will soon be business as usual and, in Wales, that means making the most of what possession you get.
It was soon obvious that things were not going well in the forward battle against Ireland last weekend. Their line-out was rampant, they were able to drive their own ball and steal or disrupt on the Welsh throw-in. Wales were on the back foot in the scrums and, because they were never going forward, they were losing the battle at the breakdown.
So it was back to the old days - Wales living off scraps - and what did Priestland do? He kicked the ball back to Ireland time after time after time. He had made one nice little break against Italy the week before but when the going was really tough he did not even attempt to tie in the Irish back-row by having a go himself. It was not even as if the kicks were probing - inevitably, he picked out one of the back three!
Gatland's reaction - or lack of it - was completely baffling. He had James Hook on the bench but, whilst he used every other replacement, left him there kicking his heels.
It made absolutely no sense. Hook is obviously not Gatland's favourite player - apparently, the move to France was the last straw - but he is one of the gifted few who can find openings in a confined space, goes for them and is then capable of finding that special pass to put a support runner through the gap.
He has also been in impressive form for his French club, Perpignan. He played poorly when he was required to start at fly-half after Priestland was injured in the World Cup but, having played nearly all his rugby for Gatland at full-back or centre, that was hardly surprising. Perhaps he has too much talent. He might have been a truly great fly-half if he had been allowed to play all his rugby in that position.
The spotlight is now on Gatland. This was not just a poor day for Wales it was endemic of a deeper malaise and they need to adjust their tactics to make the most of what is still a very talented back division. Hook could be the key but the New Zealand coach is a stubborn man and I fear he is not for turning.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
John Taylor is a former Wales international who toured with the British & Irish Lions in 1968 and 1971. Since retiring he has worked in the media and has covered the last eight Lions tours as a commentator or journalist