RANKED: The most feared half-back partnerships in Test rugby

James While
Rugby World Cup: Split with Sexton, Ntamack, Dupont and Smith

With the Rugby World Cup looming, Planet Rugby will be taking a look at the units of a team to measure who has the advantage in the lead-up to the tournament.

As the competition promises more tries than we’ve ever seen before, game controlling half-backs are the key to success.

5. Scotland: Ben White and Finn Russell

If they get enough front foot ball, the riches in the Scottish backline have peerless attacking power, from one of the best centre pairings in the world to a back three of huge pace and physicality.

The arch-conductor Finn Russell is a man capable of unlocking any defence at any point of any match. Sure, he’s high risk and high reward but few players are so universally loved as the impish Racing 10. Flat is the word that personifies him, but in a good way. Flat to the line to challenge defences, a deliverer of the flattest passes and of flat booming touch finders, Russell has some of the most exquisite attacking skills in the game.

Inside him, Ben White’s improvement over the past year has impressed all, moving ahead of Ali Price in the pecking order. A formidable box-kicking game is at the heart of the Scottish exit strategy and his breaks around the ruck and scrum keep all interested.

Make no mistake, Scotland will bloody some noses at the World Cup and with these two steering the ship, they’re capable of beating any side in the competition.

Strengths: Creativity, confidence, kicking game
Weaknesses: Russell’s brain fades, mistakes under pressure

4. South Africa: Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard

It seems churlish to rank the current world champion pair as low as fourth but that’s more to do with the quality of others in this list.

Pollard is the consummate Springbok-style 10 and one of their finest, blessed with pragmatic rugby IQ and incredible control – his vision simply keeps teams on the front foot and rolling forward. Since his long-standing injury issues cleared up with Tigers, every week he seems to have added a couple more inches of pace to his game and his form is very much on the upslope.

De Klerk might not have had the rave seasons of a few years ago, but few scrum-halves have his competitive nature and variety of plays. Comfortable playing any form of style, his box-kicking is magnificent, his gas around the side impressive and his service is perfect.

This pair are world champs for good reason – consistency and intellect – and they’ll be desperate to add a fourth star to their green and gold jerseys.

Strengths: Superb kicking game, decision-making, game control
Weaknesses: International form of both players, creativity stifled by game plan

3. New Zealand: Aaron Smith and Richie Mo’unga

Whilst the world raves about Antoine Dupont’s recent impact on the game, Aaron Smith is the man who has set the standard for half-back play for the last 10 years in the All Black shirt. Blessed with the best and fastest pass in the game, his ability to pressure his opposite number couldn’t have been more clearly illustrated than at Twickenham in November, where he completely dismantled Jack van Poortvliet’s confidence and tactics at the base of the English scrum.

Outside him, Richie Mo’unga is the favoured 10 in Ian Foster’s plans, but it may well be that Beauden Barrett, or perhaps even Damian McKenzie, who starts there – whichever it is makes no difference to the ranking of the All Black pairing. Mo’unga’s game control and kicking game is superior to that of Barrett’s and McKenzie’s more unstructured approach, and with the latter two able to play at 15 to a world-class level, it seems certain that the Canterbury man will be at fly-half.

Whichever pairing they use, the All Black ability to play positive transition rugby based upon pace and high skill levels is without peer and their half-backs will play a leading role in delivering their 2023 challenge.

Strengths: Skill levels, creativity, tempo into the game, rugby intelligence
Weaknesses: Still question marks over first choice 10

2. France: Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack

France get second place almost on Dupont’s brilliance alone. There’s little doubt he’s the best player in the world and if Les Bleus pull off a home World Cup win, then he may well go down as the greatest scrum-half in the history of the sport.

His relationship with Ntamack is almost unique. France play a split field 1/3/3 attacking system, using Thomas Ramos as a secondary fly-half, thus giving Dupont the options to strut his stuff down either side of the pitch, highlighting his ability to pass and kick off either hand or foot.

The speed of ball from hand to foot in his kicking work is astonishing – split second stuff giving defenders no hope of containing him.

France’s only concern is that in recent times we’ve seen a few cracks emerge in their system. Toulouse versus Leinster was one such game where Dupont’s backline structure simply fell apart after a player was replaced, but at their best, both Ntamack and Dupont are capable of mercurial rugby.

World watch out, these boys are in it to win it.

Strengths: Dupont’s sheer genius, variety, telepathic understanding
Weaknesses: Kicking game an issue early in Six Nations

1. Ireland: Jamison Gibson-Park and Johnny Sexton

Unpopular opinion: in the last two big games Dupont and Gibson-Park have met, the Leinster scrum-half has won each of those head-to-head battles. Leinster v Toulouse in both 2022 and 2023, where in each case, he had an absolute blinder. That is the key reason we believe that this pair are the best around.

Pace is at the centre of his game: in decision-making, passing and breaking, and his nuggety commitment to contact and physicality demonstrates clearly his Kiwi heritage.

Outside him, the grand statesman of world rugby, Sexton, is still the most complete 10 around when he’s fit and firing. He benefits from playing with virtually the same combinations alongside him at club and international level, and that intuitive understanding is at the centre of everything that is so brilliant about Ireland – and Leinster – right now.

Sexton is on track to overcome his injury to feature at the World Cup. His presence is vital, not only for his metronomic goal-kicking and his brilliant tactical mind, but for his leadership – the voice of the backline and a superb strategist.

Ireland have never progressed beyond a quarter final but, with Gibson-Park and Sexton at the helm, there’s no ceiling to how far they might go this year.

Strengths: Creativity, cohesion, rugby intelligence, kicking game
Weaknesses: Sexton’s durability

Honourable mentions

There are not too many others putting their hands up, with Australia perhaps the next best should Nic White and Quade Cooper be fit and firing ahead of the World Cup. Other than that, England have the talent, as has often been the case, but not the form or cohesion to see their units thrive. Wales are probably similar in that regard with Tomos Williams, Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar all fine players, but they struggled in the Six Nations, with Biggar in particular letting himself down.

That leaves Italy and Argentina, who have the ability, but it has yet to click properly. Paolo Garbisi and Santiago Carreras are both exceedingly gifted rugby players but haven’t had the scrum-halves to match their quality. The Italians’ half-back Stephen Varney could be that player, especially with his pace around the fringes, but his kicking game needs work as their exits were dreadful in the Six Nations.

READ MORE: RANKED: The five most feared lock partnerships in Test rugby