If someone had told you even a month ago, let alone six months ago, that Kirby Myhill would likely win his first Wales cap off the bench against New Zealand in the next autumn internationals you’d probably have not believed them.
In fact, I’d wager that the events of the last week, which have seen the player called up to the Wales squad as an injury replacement for Elliot Dee and then named straight among the replacements as Ken Owens was declared unfit for Saturday evening’s game, are probably a surprise to Myhill himself.
Nevertheless, it is not so left-field in the sense that the 29-year-old is playing badly.
Actually after a tough period at the Arms Park during the John Mulvihill era where he suffered with injuries and struggled to jump Liam Belcher and Kris Dacey in the hooking pecking order, Myhill has found that Dai Young has put a lot of faith in him as first choice to wear the number two jersey and leading the side on multiple occasions, and he has certainly paid his director of rugby back.
At Cardiff we have struggled without a scrummaging hooker since the retirement of Matthew Rees. Often the props have taken the brunt of the criticism but gradually over the last two years Duane Goodfield has done good work with the pack, and this season Myhill has become the missing piece to the scrummaging puzzle.
Whilst we are still not a totally dominant side at the scrum, see the first half of Ospreys away for evidence of that, we are capable of holding our own against the majority of sides in the league, and against the Sharks and the Dragons in particular we were the better side on the day.
Looking at Myhill’s importance in that sense the final clip is a great example of the work of a scrummaging hooker. You can see his elbows getting nice and high as he uses the strength through his chest and down to the base of his legs to maintain that structure of the front row, allowing the props to concentrate on their technique and driving straight while getting the benefits of the weight coming from the second rows behind them.
With that staple of hooking down, the next step is the lineouts where, in the four games watched for this piece from the start of this season, only three lineouts were lost on his watch. One overthrow, one stolen in the air and one not straight, giving him a 91% success rate with his 31 completed throws.
What adds to his lineout game though is how Myhill is utilised not just as the thrower but as an attacking weapon from front peels. It’s a smart move as it’s disguised by the fact that the majority of hookers make the same run from the touchline to the back of the maul as the ball carrier during the heave, but he’s quick and athletic enough to get around the maul and test the fringes before the defence can react.
It’s in this part of his play where he’s likely to be particularly valued by Young, and where it’s easy to see why he’s caught the eye of Wayne Pivac too, with both coaches presiding over sides who are looking to play wider and higher tempo attacking rugby.
His decision making and handling skills at the back of the lineout mean that he can get the ball into danger men’s hands like Willis Halaholo, the silky no-look pass sending the centre over for his try against Sharks, but his ball carrying means he can provide front-foot, and crucially quick, ball to play with into phases two and three, with that quick ball generation being a key part of his wider carrying game.
Now I’m not going to pretend that Myhill is on the Cannonball Ken Owens level of head-down powering over the gain line, but the player himself is not pretending that either so has adapted his carrying game to provide the best possible service to his team.
He moves on to the ball at pace, tries to be as physical as possible through the initial contact and then gets his body in a good position to get down to the ground quickly and in a way that allows him to present the ball cleanly and quickly.
In each clip in the phase following Myhill’s carry we’re either getting over the gainline through a quick pick-and-go, or the scrum-half is able to move the ball quickly away from the tackle area and play into the backs who are on the front foot and up against a defence struggling to get around the corner and form up quickly.
It’s that engine and brain that has seen Young’s faith in the player rewarded as we look to evolve our play at the Arms Park, and why Myhill can step up to the international level in a Pivac side. He has the legs and the game reading ability to put himself in positions to influence the game, underlined by the amount of times he has mopped up loose ball on kick chase for Cardiff this season.
All too often it is Myhill on the end of knock downs or handling errors on kick chases as he shows off his drive to get around the park and put himself in areas where he is able to have an impact on the game, as well as his leadership to be right at the front of those kick chases, hauling the team up the field alongside him.
On an evening against New Zealand where the roof will be open at the Principality Stadium and wet conditions are expected, having that option from your hooker will be very welcome for Pivac and his coaching staff.
The other area where they are no doubt keen for him to have an impact is defensively as, judging by the Wales 23 having only Taine Basham and Wyn Jones as recognised jackals, and Seb Davies covering the bench with Jac Morgan overlooked for the whole squad, the order of the day defensively will be trying to hold the All Blacks up in contact and slow their attacking game down that way.
The low base that helps his ball carrying is beneficial in defence too as he can get his shoulder under the ball in the carrier’s arms and drive up, holding them off their knees and at the very least allowing his defence to reset while the tackle goes on towards five seconds, or even as is the case in the final two clips, leading to a turnover through a ball rip or a maul being called.
It is no doubt the case that if you are an Ospreys hooker over the last two weeks then you are wondering what you have done to annoy Wayne Pivac, but there is also no doubt that Kirby Myhill has been playing some of his best rugby for Cardiff over the last five weeks.
He has the attributes that will fit into a Pivac Wales side, he has plenty of experience from his 10+ years as a professional player with Scarlets and Cardiff, and he is clearly a trusted leader of men, something which it is never possible to have too many of on a rugby field.
Hopefully we see him do himself proud if he gets on the pitch on Saturday night, pob lwc Kirby!