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 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.
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.
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).