The November International Test series is upon us again and fans can look ahead to the best of the best going to battle for the next three weeks.
The big three from the southern hemisphere, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, have all travelling north for the annual series and they arrive on our shores brimming with talent and confidence.
As Ireland prepare for South Africa, Fiji and Argentina, England look forward to clashes with Australia, Argentina and Samoa. At the same time, Wales welcome Australia, New Zealand and Georgia, while Scotland entertain the same sides as England.
France are also in action this month, with clashes with Argentina, Samoa and Fiji, arguably the easiest fixture list of the northern hemisphere big guns.
As the respective pack from each country prepares to stamp their authority over their counterparts and each set of backs looks to dazzle and evade, it is potentially in the half-back line where some of the most intriguing battles are set to be fought.
Between the touring squad and the home sides, the greatest scrum and fly-halves of the game will be on show this month.
As individual, each position can change the fortunes of a contest. Together, operating like the well-oiled brain and gears of the machine, they can be irresistibly devastating.
As the November internationals get underway on Saturday, fans can expect to see the best half-back pairings in the world in action, with each pivotal pair looking to control the pace from behind their heaving packs.
Ahead of the weekend action, let’s explore just who and what we can expect from the home and touring half-back partnerships.
Australia – Bernard Foley and Will Genia
Foley passed the half-century of caps during the recently concluded Rugby Championship and has been the primary out-half for Michael Cheika’s side since his debut in 2013.
Though Quade Cooper has stepped into the No.10 jersey from time to time, Foley’s consistency and calmness under pressure has seen become the first choice fly-half for the Wallabies.
Genia is arguably one of the best scrum-halves ever to distribute the ball from the back of a ruck. The Papua New Guinea native burst onto the international scene for the Wallabies back in 2009 and has amassed 85 caps since then.
Tenacious and strong, the 29-year-old is known for his sniping runs and catching defensive lines off-guard, scoring 14 international tries.
Australia’s out-half position has been far less stable in recent years.
New Zealand – Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith
Arguably the best half-back pairing in world rugby today, Barrett and Smith consistently provide world-class ball to the formidable All Blacks forwards and backs.
Barrett is the current World Player of the Year and is likely in with a good shout of a repeat this year. While is no Dan Carter when it comes to slotting the ball between the sticks, his ability to place the ball behind opposition defensive, with via his boot or tucked under his arm, makes him one of, if not the most dangerous No.10’s in world rugby today.
Smith has been a stalwart of Steven Hansen’s squad ever since his debut in 2012 and has been selected for every All Blacks squad since 2013.
His crisp and precision passing and overall ability to read the game has labelled the 28-year-old as one of the best in the modern game today.
Ireland – Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray
Ever since the dawn of the professional game, Ireland has been spoiled for talent in the half-back line. Following in the footsteps of the legends that are O’Gara and Stringer, Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray have become arguably the best pairing in the northern hemisphere.
Sexton succeeded O’Gara as Ireland’s starting out-half back in 2010, following his international debut a year earlier.
Quickly earning a status as one of the best in the game, in both attack and defence, the Leinster man has amassed over 600 points and nearly 70 caps so far for Ireland.
A three time British and Irish Lions tourist, his tenacity and courage this past summer against the All Blacks further reinforced the notion that in Sexton, Ireland have a fly-half only second to Barrett.
Munster man Murray is of the new breed of scrum-half. At 6’2″, he is a formidable presence behind the pack. Able to control the game like a fly-half and with boxing and place kicking that rival the very best in the game, the 28-year-old is regarded in the same bracket as Will Genia and Aaron Smith.
England – George Ford/Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs/Danny Care
Despite, or perhaps because of England’s immense pool of talent, the half-back line has, in recent seasons, seen regular changes in the match-day line up.
Owen Farrell has long been regarded as one of the best No.10’s in the game today, with his point kicking complimented by his attacking and defensive prowess.
In recent times, however, the Saracens man has switched to inside centre for England, with George Ford coming in to deputise at out-half.
While Ford dictates play for England, Farrell retains kicking duties. Though it is not a traditional half-back set up, it works for Eddie Jones’ side, with back-to-back Six Nations titles to show for their efforts.
At scrum-half things are similarly fluid. Ben Youngs and Danny Care have been fighting it out for the No.9 jersey for a number of seasons and with each bringing different, yet world class, skill sets to the table, England boss Jones has regularly substituted one for the other in recent terms.
With the luxury of having multiple options across the half-back line, nailing down the definitive pair is nearly impossible as Jones has tailored his selections to the opposition.
Wales – Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb
Dan Biggar continues the long line of top-class out-halves that have sprung from the WRU system. Having finally secured a regular spot in the Wales squad in 2014, a full six years since his debut, the 28-year-old has gone on to earn more than 50 caps for his country.
Often playing without the responsibility of kicking points, a role filled by full-back Leigh Halfpenny, Biggar uses his boot and physicality to keep Wales driving forward and when he is called on to split the sticks with the ball, he generally does so as well as anybody else in the world.
Wales will lose the services of scrum-half Rhys Webb next season when he moves to Toulon but until that time, the dynamic 28-year-old remains in the mix for Warren Gatland’s side.
Having suffered a number of serious injuries between 2015 and 2016, Webb recovered and has held dominion over the scrum-half position this past year.
Selected for the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand, the Ospreys man showcased his abilities on the biggest stage and seriously threatened Conor Murray for the starting spot in the first Test against the All Blacks.
The absence of the likes of Scotland’s Greig Laidlaw and Australia’s Quade Cooper has been determined not by ignoring their own considerable skill sets, but rather by the fact that when taken as part of a half-back pairing, there are others that do it better.
The curtain goes up on the 2017 November international series on Saturday with Italy taking on Fiji at 2:00pm, Scotland hosting Samoa at 2:30pm. England and Argentina kick off at 3:00pm, before Wales entertain Australia at 5:00pm and Ireland take on South Africa at 5:30pm.