What makes a great playmaker?

Great playmaker Dan Carter
All Black legend Dan Carter. Photo: Geoff Trotter, Wikimedia Commons

In the two rugby codes, the team is organised around playmakers – the five-eighth (or fly half) in union, and the five-eighth and halfback in league. They are often, particularly in union, supported by other players, but it is their job to run the team. So what makes a good playmaker?

Since 2010 there have been a number of great playmakers in both rugby union and league. They can be largely divided into two categories: organisers, and game breakers.

Organisers (as the name suggests) have strong game management skills, and help the team to build pressure through repeat phases or sets. Game breakers are those players who can spot defensive gaps in the opposition, and create points-scoring opportunities from anywhere on the field.

In union the top organising playmaker recently has been Ireland’s Johnny Sexton. His league counterpart has been Cooper Cronk, from Australia. Both these men excel at steering forward packs around the park, and are strong tactical kickers.

The best game breakers are those who can set a team on fire with a single play or run. From union the best is Beauden Barrett, the All Blacks five-eighth, while in league it is Jonathan Thurston. Game breakers tend to be incredibly exciting to watch, and are capable of conjuring plays out of nowhere. They can often lack the patience required to apply pressure to a strong defensive opponent, however.

In this analysis I have left out Dan Carter, Barrett’s predecessor at the All Blacks. In my opinion he excelled at both organising and game breaking, and is the best playmaker of the modern era – or possibly any era.

Teams play best when they have both organisers and game breakers on the field. In rugby league, for example, one of the halves will often control the pattern of play, while the other waits for the right moment to strike. The best example of this could be seen when Cronk and Thurston played together for Queensland and Australia.

In rugby union often the halfback will take on the organising role when there is a game breaking five-eighth. Aaron Smith at the All Blacks plays this role with Barrett. Where the five-eighth is an organiser the inside centre or fullback will generally be a strike playmaker. While not on the level of some of the other combinations mentioned, Kurtley Beale and Bernard Foley combine in this way for the Wallabies.

Of course most of the best playmakers will have some of the attributes of both roles, whether they are a natural game breaker or organiser. And the very best, like Carter, are able to switch from one to the other depending on what their team needs.