As Brad Shields gathered Jordi Barret’s under-the-legs pass and shifted it on to Ngani Laumape for another Hurricanes try, the commentator, in a moment of excitement, bellowed “England’s next number six”.

This got me thinking how a fine player, long stuck behind the likes of Kaino, Squire, Dixon et al, will likely walk on to a team so long touted as the main challenger to the All Blacks. The Northern Hemisphere’s importation of foreign talent is often brushed aside but has become too glaring in recent times to be ignored.

The Number 12

The inside centre, (number 12 or ‘second five-eighth’ in Southern Hemisphere parlance) is one of the most hotly debated tactical discussions within rugby right now. The Ford-Farrell axis that has defined Eddie Jones’ regime was deemed flawless until the recent losses to Scotland, France and Ireland. Having a second playmaker in the side simply creates more options, not to mention the defensive security a second, reassuring boot can have in vital test matches.

Kurtley Beale

Kurtley Beale is the consummate second five-eighth. The Waratahs’ man has been a shining light in a struggling time for Australian rugby. I feel Michael Cheika doesn’t get half the credit that he deserves. Losing Bledisloe Cups doesn’t make or break a team. Playing the All Blacks is hard. That’s what made Ireland’s win historic. Cheika even crafted a win the last time the sides met, aided in no small way by Beale pulling the strings in tandem with Bernard Foley. As fine players as they are the twin lumps of Kerevi and Kuridrani had clear limitations. A playmaking 12 is the quickest way to remove such limitations and forge a threatening and unpredictable back line.

Beale has been in majestic form for the Wallabies of late at second five-eighth
Beale has been in majestic form for the Wallabies of late at second five-eighth.

Kiwi in Llanelli-Waikato to the West of Ireland

This brings me on to my main point. During the recent Six Nation’s every team bar France fielded a New Zealand inside centre. In round five, three started; Ben Te’o, Bundee Aki and Hadleigh Parkes respectively. Te’o converted from Rugby League to British and Irish Lion while both Parkes and Aki swapped playing Super Rugby for leading sides like the Chiefs, Blues and Hurricanes for respective European quarter-finals last weekend.

The trend doesn’t even end there. Nick Grigg came off the bench for Scotland against Ireland. Grigg didn’t even play Mitre 10 Cup rugby, never mind get to franchise level in his country of birth. Meanwhile, journeyman Jayden Hayward played over half an hour for the Azzurri. Every side in the Six Nations bar France are using imported centres. There might not be something in the water but there certainly is in the training and culture.

Conclusion

The centres named aren’t even quite the second five-eighth figures mentioned in the beginning. The sole criticism of Aki has been his distribution skills, so too with Te’o when he was pushing for a Lions starting berth. Why then do they find themselves required? They seemingly have a skill set that isn’t being produced in the Northern Hemisphere. Rory Scannell and Henry Slade are some notable exceptions and may well be called upon to add another dimension to their national sides in the coming months.

Schmidt and Jones won’t be the only coaches casting their eyes over this key position. Whoever solves it first will probably be the main challenger to New Zealand come Autumn. Hopefully it will be Ireland and hopefully, we can begin to produce our own Crottys and Beales in the long term.

Author: Shane Nolan

Shane is a History and English graduate of University College Cork with a keen interest in writing, rugby, and writing about rugby. He is both a follower of Munster and Irish rugby as well as an enthusiastic viewer of Super Rugby. His zest for Southern Hemisphere rugby often gets him up at 6 am to see some proper running tries and off-loads (as well as some dodgy kicking and questionable forward passes).

12 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting that the All Blacks favour a twelve who is a gain line breaker first, but who also has decent skills (the last bit is vital of course). For example Nonu, SBW, Laumape. This creates space for everyone else. Of course it helps to have distributors like Barrett, McKenzie and Crotty around you. That set up has so many ways to attack, whereas the Aussies and English can lack go forward.

  2. The problem is that England’s centre are either or, there isn’t anyone who threatens the line and has top class playmaking skills.

    • England completely lack carrying centres of any kind. Who is an option apart from Teo and Tuilagi (if he’s ever fit)? So if we tried to play a NZ style combo, who would we pick at 12?

      There are a plethora of 10/12 hybrid playmakers behind Farrell. Mallinder, Francis, Slade and Lozowski have all been involved recently with England and there are plenty more in the Premiership, such as Ryan Mills or Billy Twelvetrees. None of those guys really threaten the line as power runners as a kiwi 12 would and apart from Slade aren’t able to play the Conrad Smith/Ryan Crotty style 13.

      Wales used Owen Williams in November and Scotland have Peter Horne. The Scots and Welsh have 13s like Huw Jones and Jon Davies who can compliment those guys though. They fill the kiwi centre roles but swap them over. Unfortunately for England, we don’t have those players.

  3. In my point of view 12 is the most important position in the game.
    10 reads before looking static defenses and anticipates the movement and the spaces.
    But 12 (or the one who plays the role of second playmaker on a back move, but mostly is 12) is the one who makes decisions against a defense that’s moving (drifting, rushing, running straight, any variation) completely different from what they were doing before the ball was in game.
    At least that’s my style of 12. He still needs to be able to hit hard to absorb 2 defenders in every tackle (preferably foe’s 12 and 13) but without brains that kind of 12 is just a backrower in the backline.
    Brains and power. Isn’t that the ideal rugby player?

  4. This is the conundrum that is part of the modern game of rugby at the moment. The 10-12 axis which I felt was a reason to why New Zealand struggled against the Lions at times! Or is the New Zealand way as describe the best way to go. Ireland has try to find bodies at outside center that can distribute and break the line and gone with Aki who has the ability to do both as well! I think they have an abundance of resources at center and have a number of options that seem to be able to do both distribute and pound and isn’t that ideal because typically this people can defend very well as well. Munster beat Toulon with Scanell and Arnold at centers( more of the 10-12 axis) where Toulon had Nonu and Bastreaud which is probably more of the ten twelve than it is the New Zealand way. Munster fronted up and chopped tackle all day. I want to say it should matter on what you have and as a result of the talent you have and as a result you must be able to play both ways that will allow you to use both type of players. England has Ford and Farrell, in addition other twelves who can play that way! Their issue is there outside centers are not really pounders and as a result have struggled to get on the front foot! But they are great defensively and therefore should be able to play out wide and move the ball but they then have to use their forwards who without Billy Vunipolo have struggled to get on the front foot. Itoje is an athlete and needs to become a ball carrier if just for that reason. Lawes was becoming this ball carrier type but then he got hurt. Robshaw is a support player as is Hartley. Launchberry is thought of as a ballcarrier but he is simply not athletic enough. Mako is but they need more ball carriers to use the width their backline is set up for. If you do not have the forwards to get on the front foot then you have to pick centers to do that! Everything simply put is so interdependent on selection. 5 ballcarriers and three support players in the pack is the mix that I consistently see from Ireland and I believe from the All blacks if you have that I believe either center combination can work! That was a lot said! I appreciate the topic!

    • Thanks John! I really like your point about the ball carrier/support balance, something kind of simple but very easy to overlook (I did anyway). I’d fully agree that England need more ball carriers in Vunipola’s absence (and when he’s there it wouldn’t go astray either), Shields or Simmonds could do that, at least in a more dynamic sense.

  5. Important to note that injuries have decimated Scotland’s options at 12 of late: Alex Dunbar, Matt Scott, Duncan Taylor, Mark Bennet. Not sure how close Grigg would be to the team if these guys were all fully fit.

  6. Hi Shane. I know it’s not the main point of the article, but about the first point. England won’t pick Brad Shields unless his form is good enough for the All Blacks. It’s not a problem position, we have more depth there than anyone in the world. Off the top of my head we can already choose from the likes of Robshaw, Haskell, Armand, Ewers, Simmonds, Underhill, Clifford, Iziekwe, Lawes, Wood, Clarke (all capped) Ben Curry, Zach Mercer and a lot of others. There are all kinds of different styles, ages and options within that group. Shields could force his way in, as could Micheal Rhodes who will be available soon. You wouldn’t say he is guaranteed though!

    • Thanks Daniel, I just realised I left a comment rather than replying which was foolish as nobody will spot it. I get what you mean though, will depend on how he goes in the Premiership.

  7. Hi Daniel,
    Good point on the centre situation and while I know it’s a bit of a shout to say Shields will walk into the squad in my eyes he should. Granted Underhill and Simmonds will provide stern competition but I never fully rated Robshaw or Haskell. I think Ireland, New Zealand and possibly even Wales have finer back row options, fewer but finer. Understandably many of the younger names could become test players, especially Curry (really good analysis in your article) and Isiekwe. I’d still fancy Shields’ chances though, the likes of Harrison/Wood etc. were often picked by default rather than design and while it’s good Jones is picking a settled back row I don’t feel it’s the right balance.
    Also, @John Klein very good point about ball carrier/support balance, something very easy to overlook, I’d fully agree that England need more ball carriers in Vunipola’s absence (and when he’s there it wouldn’t go astray either), Shields or Simmonds could do that, at least in a more dynamic sense. Also, @DougieJT While I know there are a good few injuries I’d still stick with Grigg over all bar Dunbar. For a relatively small centre he really does make metres (probably more than Haskell and Robshaw haha)

  8. Hello Shane,
    He’s different from the excellent Rory Scannell but Robbie Henshaw isn’t just a carrier – having been an outside back, he fancies his passing and kicking game too, when allowed. I have more images in my mind of Henshaw bringing Leinster outside backs into play than Ireland outside backs but that’s purely anecdotal.

  9. I have always thought the ABs system of having the second playmaker at OC means that the attacks can be spread out more. It also gives the 10 more options with the short crash ball before the wider pull back. This holds defences and then offers more space out wide. England are trying to do this with both the Vunipolas, but due to injury is not happening.
    If they are without Billy especially, them Te’o must play at IC.
    I would be interested in a backlands of
    9. Robson
    10. Cipriani overall offers more than Farrell in attack and better defence than Ford
    11. Nowell need a hard working winger to offer a crash ball and security of OC.
    12. Te’o strong pivot for others to make runs off
    13. Lozowski stronger than Slade, good hands and vision
    14. Watson good running lines
    15. Daly
    The back 4 are all good footballers who can offer good running lines and the strength to support in contact.
    The only issue is the balance of the pack.

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