Number 13s take centre stage in Six Nations clash of styles

Even the most casual observer can testify to the amount rugby has changed in recent years. The arrival of lifting in the lineout, handling in rucks, blitz defences, 90% goal kickers and substitutes, the disappearance of boots on bodies, moustaches, beer guts, not to mention the advent of tight shirts and bodybuilder-style physiques have made the game almost unrecognisable from even 15 years ago. Nowadays it would be 5’9” Tony Underwood who was considered the freak rather than Jonah Lomu.

Mathieu Bastareaud
Bastereaud – Size: Massive; Style: Bludgeon

But in spite of this, the core roles and skills attached to each position have remained largely unchanged. Certainly there have been tweaks but each player occupies broadly the same cog in the machine that he would have done in past decades. The primary job of the prop is to scrummage; the lock to secure lineout ball; the back row to link play, tackle everything and be a godforsaken nuisance to the opposition; the half backs to distribute, kick and run the show; the wingers to provide the gas and the tries. The position of full back has become more attacking but he still represents the last line of defence and must be reliable with a decent boot.

The role of the centres however has become rather more ambiguous. Opinion has been divided between hemispheres for some years as to the primary role of the inside centre. The fact that down south they call him the ‘second five-eight’, thus grouping him with the fly half, demonstrates that they see him as a second playmaker. Up here, he has more traditionally been the bludgeon to provide a target and create space for those around him. While the hemispheric divide may have blurred in recent times, the 12 still generally fits into one of these 2 categories.

Which leaves the outside centre position. Traditionally, the 13 shirt was occupied by lithe, athletic runners like Mike Gibson, Jeremy Guscott and Philippe Sella. Whereas now you see wingers playing full back on occasion, testifying to the new attacking dimension of that position, you used to see the likes of David Duckham, Gerald Davies and JJ Williams appearing in the centre. It was often the position of the best attacking runner in the side.

These days only the bludgeoning Aurelien Rougerie or Sean Lamont style wingers step inside. And huge units such as Stirling Mortlock, Mike Tindall, Ma’a Nonu and Tom Shanklin are more the rule than the exception. The position has become more direct, more physical and overall more defensive. He leads and organises the blitz defence and must have the skills of a flanker at the breakdown.

Brian O’Driscoll bridges the gap between the two, possessing a bewitching outside break but being as accomplished as any back rower over the ball. But he is increasingly noticed more for the latter rather than the former. It speaks volumes that Mathew Tait, something of a throwback to the days of the willowy, pacy 13, has spent some years in the international wilderness because of doubts over his physicality and work at the breakdown. Can you imagine Guscott’s reaction to being left out in the mid 1990s for this reason?

However there seems to have been something of a reversal in recent months. There has long been a hankering to open the game up and make it less attritional. With huge straight-line running ball carriers having become the norm, the quick-footed, imaginative game-breaker is back in demand. Furthermore, 13s are being used almost as playmakers in the wide channels in the manner of Conrad Smith.

All of which makes the outside centre selections during this Six Nations rather interesting. Managers must weigh up whether to pick the bludgeon or the rapier, the brains or the brawn, the fast or the physical. Not every team has the luxury of an O’Driscoll, probably the best defensive back around, so must cut their cloth accordingly, but the selection in this position has become something of a barometer for how the team is aiming to approach the game.

The selection of Tait over the more direct Dan Hipkiss was an indication that England, not that you would know it from their performances, have brought a greater attacking intent into this tournament than previously. They aspire to a quick game where the 13 will receive the ball in space and be able to break the line. He must do his flanker work too but he adds an extra attacking dimension.

Wales, in picking the skilful James Hook ahead of Tom Shanklin have stated their intent to play a fast game and utilise the space created by Jamie Roberts inside. Hook, a fly half by instinct, has taken on the role of playmaker in the wide channels. This makes a lot of sense as it takes the pressure off the fly half to be everywhere at once and control every play. Hook has shown some sublime touches but has been shown up defensively on occasion, demonstrating not only the difficulty in performing all of the tasks required of the role but also why coaches have so often erred towards the conservative option.

France have taken another approach with the mountainous Matthieu Bastereaud. He is very much from the bludgeon camp. As an all round player he is not a patch on Hook or O’Driscoll (no kicking game, wins few turnovers and does not read the game as effectively) but he has shown that, even in these gym-inspired days, a combination of real pace and exceptional size can still be devastating. He has a deft offload in his armoury as well (which French player does not?). His selection sent the signal that France would be playing a direct and physical game, far from the days of Sella, Blanco and Mesnel. And so it has proved as none of the Celtic nations have been able to live with their physicality. He has been mightily effective but this approach no longer seems to be the vogue.

There is no cut and dried formula for any position in rugby these days. If Cian Healy were to stand next to Andrew Sheridan, or Stefan Armitage to Schalk Burger, or Mike Phillips to Morgan Parra, or Matt Banahan to Shane Williams, you would not believe in a million years that they play in the same position. But it is in the outside centre position that the core skills are the most varied and ambiguous and in a way the most optional. You do not need to possess them all to make a success of it. The selection in this position can be seen in many ways as a statement of intent – attack or defence; rapier or bludgeon; running at men or at space. And for those who have lamented the lack of ambition in rugby this season, find a crumb of comfort in the fact that, while Basteraud has made the biggest impact this year, the old-fashioned, pacy Hook/Tait/O’Driscoll/Guscott style player is making something of a comeback

By Stuart Peel

One thought on “Number 13s take centre stage in Six Nations clash of styles

  1. Interesting piece Stuart. I guess with the increasing influence of the defensive coaches over the past decade there is less space for fleet-footed 13s to exploit and they have morphed into ball-carring backrowers lining-up in the backs. It all makes Brian O’Driscoll’s adaptation more remarkable – the archetypal outside centre.

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