Alan Leon MacGinty is a Dublin born, American international, fly half. After only playing a total of 502 Premiership minutes last season AJ has experienced a rugby renaissance of sorts and already has 772 Premiership minutes so far this season after just 11 games and has nailed down the 10 shirt. Despite his mercurial form this season, I don’t think anyone would consider AJ the best fly half in the Premiership, but this is because the nuance and style of MacGinty’s game can often go over people’s heads. The intention of this article isn’t to play down the ability of any other 10 but to appreciate the ability of AJ and maybe convince everyone reading this that he is the best 10 in the Premiership.
To understand why AJ is so good you must first understand how modern rugby attacks function. Successful rugby teams will have one dominant halfback and one non-dominant halfback, simply so that one of them can control the pattern of the attack and manage the attacking options. Think of a kitchen, you can’t have two head chefs because this would create conflict and confusion, one of them must have ultimate control to create the best end product. For example, in the France attack, Antione Dupont is the dominant halfback while Ntamack and Jalibert are the non-dominant half backs however in the Scotland attack Finn Russell is the dominant half back and Price is the non-dominant half back. You want to give the ‘stronger’ of your two half backs more control so that they make the correct decisions. Once you understand this you must then understand that modern rugby teams either play off 9 or off 10. Teams that play off 9 play a tight, forward-orientated game that is designed to wear down defenders (e.g. Exeter) while teams that play off 10 play a more wider game designed to engage more defenders and create gaps (e.g. Bristol). How does this relate to AJ? Well Sale play with Faf De Klerk as the dominant half back and AJ as the non-dominant half back and they also play off 9 more than any other club in the Premiership with 63% of ball off 9 (2nd is Leicester with 62%) and against Bristol in February this stat peaked at 87% off 9 which is insane. This means that for every 100 passes Faf De Klerk made, less than 13 of them went to AJ. Therefore, AJ has to be more efficient than any other 10 in the league because he consistently has less possession and chances with the ball. In addition, Sale’s forward orientated game plan means that Sale rarely spread the ball into the wide channels and prefer to play tight amongst the forwards when they get a try scoring opportunity. I feel safe in the assumption that in a game plan more directed towards attacking in the wide channels, and with more control, AJ could thrive and double his attacking stats.
AJ excels at creating chances out of nothing, he often receives the ball off a tip on from a forward pod well behind the gain line and is superb in deciding whether to distribute or to dummy and carry the ball for metres. He reminds me of George Ford in that he appears to play in slow motion when he is making decisions and is always calm and composed in possession. In the Premiership AJ is more efficient than any other international 10, in 2020 AJ made 48 carries for 169 metres, an average gain of 3.5m, while George Ford had an avergae gain of 1.7m, Dan Biggar had an average gain of 2.2m, Owen Farrell 1.4m and Callum Sheedy 2.4m. What this stat is essentially saying is that when AJ decides to run rather than pass, this is the correct decision because he makes metres on these runs consistently. Furthermore, AJ is clinical in how he finishes try scoring opportunities, he is excellent in reading the defence and calling for the ball when a chance is on, this has been seen recently through Luke James’ winning try vs Bristol when AJ makes a late run to the blindside when he sees Sale have numbers, calls for the ball, and fires a miss pass to an unmarked James (note that Cliff was the 9 at this point). This season AJ has 51 carries and 6 try assists and 1 try, that’s a conversion rate of 14%. Compare this to teams that play similar game plans to Sale, Bath and Exeter, and Priestland has a rate of 4% and Joe Simmonds has a rate of 5%. In this stat, AJ only trails Smith, Sheedy and Umaga who play for teams that play predominantly off 10 and score far more tries. Also important to note that those three play inside supreme finishers such as Marchant, Green, Radradra, Morahan, Naulago, Bassett and Kibirige while AJ has played the majority of this season without Van Rensburg, Solomona or Mcguigan and so has been assisting the likes of Doherty, Roebuck and Reed with far less finishing pedigree.
A Twitter account called “Goal kicker PLUS Rankings” has created a formula which combines goalkicking success percentage with average kick difficulty to create a metric called ‘value added’. Up to round 12 this season AJ is 5th in kicking percentage in the Premiership with 84% however he is joint 3rd in value added with Sopoaga and only behind Smith and Priestland. Furthermore, AJ has taken the 2nd most kicks at goal of any player which gives him more margin for error and therefore makes him more consistent than even these stats portray. AJ being in the top 3 10s for goalkicking is significant because, while Smith does, Priestland does not offer the same quality of play making that AJ can offer. Add to this that AJ has a top tier kicking game from hand and has an uncanny ability to recognise when there is space in the oppositions backfield and find the corners with kicks. In fact, according to OptaJonny on Twitter, AJ is 2nd in the whole league (Simmonds 1st) in kick retention with 28% from his 38 kicks retained. This means that AJ not only kicks into the right areas but his technique in hanging the ball and accuracy in finding his chasers is the some of the best in the league.
To conclude it cannot be argued that AJ is one of the most well rounded fly half’s in the league as he competes with Smith in play making, Priestland in goal kicking and Simmonds in kicking from hand. You may or may not agree with the title of this article which is fine, the important thing is that you recognise the ability that AJ has showed in recent weeks and how talented and accurate non dominant fly half’s have to be.
Credit for stats go to: RugbyPass, ESPN, Goal kicker PLUS, OptaJonny and BT Sport.