Innishannon's Jack Crowley was one of the standout stars for Ireland in the U20 Six Nations campaign.

The Young Bucks // Jack Crowley – Part 1

When you’re assessing a #10, a lot of the conversation boils down to a fairly rudimentary question.

“Are they any good?”

And the answer is usually – yeah, they are. In some ways, the question itself is pretty self-selecting because most #10s will be, by default, the best player available to the coach. That is to say, backs with the ability to kick, handle the ball off both sides, goal kick (not always, but usually) and, most importantly, direct the play over a series of phases and interject with good decision making and execution when the situation demands.

Finding a player to be your #10 at an age-grade level can literally be as simple as seeing who your best back is and moving them to that pivot position. If you think of the #10 jersey as the “pivot” then the true importance of the position will become clear to you.

What is a pivot? 

Depending on the dictionary and the exact definition, it can mean “the central point, pin, or shaft on which a mechanism turns or oscillates” or “the central or most important person or thing in a situation”. For me, that defines your primary playmaker – everything revolves around them. Your primary playmaker doesn’t always have to wear the #10 jersey but they must be someone that directs and guides your attack at all times.

The attack must “pivot” around this player. They must move players into positions and glide between different positions to generate the kind of “pictures” they want. It isn’t just about reacting – although that’s important – it’s about creating situations through your actions that lead to gain line advancement, an improvement in territory and points being scored.

Jack Crowley

Height: 1.83m/6’0″
Weight: 88kg/13st 10lbs
Position: Flyhalf
Origins: Bandon RFC, Bandon Grammar, Cork Constitution

I’m from West Cork so when I tell you that I’ve heard Jack Crowley coming from a way off, believe me.

Be it with Bandon RFC or his assured run as captain with Bandon Grammar in the Munster Senior Cup in 2019, you don’t have to dig too deep to find people talking about Jack Crowley.

The first thing you notice about him before he does anything is his size. He’s still growing into this frame – he’s only a year out of secondary school – but he’s already looking like a guy who’s got the right stuff to be a serious pro athlete for his position.

He’s got pace, he’s got acceleration and he can take contact on both sides of the ball. He’s not the tallest outhalf going – Ben Healy is 6’3″ – but Crowley is put together sturdy, and that counts for a lot when guys are coming through into the academy.

To start with, Jack Crowley wasn’t always a #10. A lot of his underage rugby was played at scrumhalf and in other backline positions.

In an interview with the Southern Star his underage coach at Bandon RFC, Bob Brady, said this of Crowley.

‘You could see from very early on that he can play anywhere across the backline,’ Brady explained.

‘No matter where he played, he shone.

‘He was equally as good as a nine, but he has turned out to be a better out half. If he had continued at nine, he would have made it there too.’

He’s got a lot of the qualities you’d look for in a flyhalf prospect. Crowley is a good runner of the ball, has a good pass off both sides, and really good offensive instincts when it comes to seeing space where it is and where it might be.

So it’s clear that Crowley is a talented kid – one look at his Six Nations campaign would tell you that – but that talent was visible from a way back. So much so that a smart coach like Brady moved him from the second most important attacking position on the pitch – scrumhalf – to the most important attacking position and Crowley kept producing the goods.

To put that in perspective, if you’ve got a good scrumhalf you’d want a very good reason to reduce the number of touches they have on the ball to move them back in the hope you’ll see an increase in overall offensive production.

A scrumhalf touches the ball 70+ times a game. Your flyhalf might interact with the ball 30 times a game but they are the pivot around which your entire attacking game revolves. That kind of responsibility is not for every player, no matter how talented, so Crowley’s rise since that point is a testament to how talented he actually is.

For a start, he’s only just turned 20 years of age in January and has spent his first year out of secondary school playing a lot of AIL rugby with Cork Con as their starting #10. He started all of Ireland’s U20 Six Nations campaign at #10 and would have finished out the last two games in the same manner barring injury.

Crowley is currently a member of the Munster sub-academy and, without looking to jump the gun, I think it’s a safe bet that he’ll be in the Munster academy proper as soon as things revert to something like normality. He has a number of highlights to his game and a cursory look at his Six Nations campaign would highlight that. This try in transition shows you a lot about Crowley the athlete.

The initial burst of acceleration, the step, the fend, the pace to escape the cover and then the strength to fend the last tackler to the floor for the finish – blockbuster stuff. These are the highpoints of his game, and I’ll get to those in time but first, we’ll have a look at the great conundrum of pivot play. Defence.

Making A Stop

How you assess a #10 from a defensive POV is a tough one, conceptually. On the one hand, judging a #10 solely on his defence is a bit like judging an assualt rifle by how well you can bash someone over the head with it. It’s like this, as a young #10 it’ll be what you can do with the ball in hand and off the tee that’ll get you in the door but it’ll be your defence that decides how long you stay.

There are some exceptions to the rule but, in general, a #10 with very poor defence but brilliant attacking play will find it very difficult to make it as a professional until they sort out the defensive side of the ball. I don’t need my #10 to be able to defend like Damien De Allende to be worth selecting but if they’re basically a turnstile with nice hair and a bangin’ Instagram then you’re going to have a problem.

The biggest part of a flyhalf’s defensive output is going to be at the set-piece and in the phases directly afterwards.

A #10 has to be capable of effectively looking after their channel at scrum time. I don’t need them to be stopping the #8/#12/#13 dead but I do need them to go low, get a good wrap and help to slow and unbalance the runner for others to finish. I need you to put a body on the ball carrier when he’s in your channel.

The scrum is the easiest set-piece to drill for, though because the attacking numbers are usually static – back on back, for the most part – with expected routes from the #8 and switches with the midfield that are easily planned for.

The lineout is a different beast because the #10 is a natural weak joint on most plays if they defend in the typical #10 position.

As your defence snaps into place, you want your #10 to be able to hold the position and, at the very least, put a body on the ball carrier if they run down their channel.

There is a growing sentiment in the game that you can scheme lighter defenders to defend other areas of the field on a lineout but that is not without risk either.

The All Blacks had Richie Mo’unga defending at #13 on lineouts during the recent World Cup for this very reason because they rightly reasoned that every flyhalf only has so many contacts in a game and when you’re that close to the hinge of a lineout, you risk getting run over by whatever monster the opposition has in their ball carrying ranks. As the All Blacks found out, good teams will find a way to lever the big guy against the small guy wherever you try to hid him and let physics take its course.

Jack Crowley has a good physique, is a good size and he’s a pretty good defender off the set-piece as a result.

He keeps the line and puts his body on the carrier. He’s on a hiding to nothing on this carry off the lineout but he puts himself on the hook to make the stop and he does so.

He’s a little high on this tackle but the intent is there. He wants to make the stop and for creative/attacking players, that instinct is something that can be worked with.

He runs a nice defensive approach off this maul break and gets low on the tackler for the stop assisted by Hernan. Again, I’d like better technique at this moment but that will come.

Crowley has a tendency to blitz up hard off these maul breaks – a side effect of lineout defence is your close positioning to any mauls that develop – and that can, at times, leave him exposed to moments where he gets caught on his heels if the action changes.

But again, this is something that will come with time and a continuance of his excellent conditioning.

During phase play, Crowley is primarily an edge and backfield defender. That isn’t to say that he can’t put a shot in on anyone when the situation demands it …

… but most of the time, you’ll see Crowley defending the backfield for Ireland U20 on all but the most compressed defensive set.

I think that’s the best place for him and, indeed, the vast majority of creative players. 

The scrumhalf will have to buzz around the primary line or as an edge defender to service the ball in case of a breakdown or contact turnover but for most #10s, I think the best place for them is in the backfield dealing with kickbacks, contestable kicks from the opposition and linebreaks.

Crowley covers this space well and he’s got the brains to work his way out to the edge of central defensive sets after a set-piece and let other defenders fill the spaces until he can head into the backfield.

Here’s a good example of that against England. Watch Crowley (Green #10). He’s up first to make the initial hit with Kelly but once that contact is made he’s always looking to get into the backfield and you next see him going after the ball on a kick through.

These are the hallmarks of a confident player. He did his job off the set-piece and now he’s off to the area of the field that he defends best. He doesn’t have to be throwing shots as the line speed leader to be effective.

What does he do on the above kick through, just out of interest?

He bangs it back to halfway between the English 10m and their 22. That’s effective defence.

Look, on certain set-piece defensive sets, your #10 is going to get potentially get exposed to a lot of defensive contact where they are at a physical disadvantage. That mostly can’t be helped unless you want to change up your defensive scheme, which has positional, mental and team cohesion disadvantages that aren’t immediately apparent.

Ask yourself this – what do you want your #10 doing? Why are they your pivot? It isn’t to defend lineouts and scrums, I’ll tell you that. They are there to influence your attack and win rugby games. When they are doing that, they will be playing close to the gainline where the opposition are going to be trying to put a shot on them and take them out of the game. Every flyhalf only has so many shots they can take during a game and I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer they take those shots creating tries rather than taking contact they aren’t built for.

Look at the injury record of Johnny Wilkinson. A brave defender who spent years of his career injured. Look at Ronan O’Gara. Not the best defender by any means but he had a 13-year test career with Ireland with a 16-year Munster career wrapped around it. He went on three Lions tours without being a fearsome defender. He’d put a shot in when necessary but defence wasn’t the biggest factor of his game.

Any young flyhalf in the modern game needs to have the size and physicality to put a stop on most players but it can’t be their defining feature. Crowley is a decent defender but that isn’t where he is going to be elite, and I really do think he will be that – an elite talent.

In the next instalment of this series, I’ll be looking at Crowley’s outstanding work with the ball in hand and off the boot.