Pat McCabe now a bona fide No.12

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Australian rugby player Pat McCabe as been forced to retire after sustaining a neck injury in Bledisloe 2. AP Photo/Rob Griffith

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It takes a special kind of player to take on an unfamiliar role and pull it off with aplomb, but to then build into that that role and take your game to another level. Well, that’s something else again.

Such is the case for Pat McCabe.

Having made his name in Super Rugby as a hard-running, harder-tackling outside back, McCabe was shuffled into the Brumbies’ no. 12 jumper toward the end of last season, with the view from above that that’s the spot he’d occupy during the Rugby World Cup.

Having played very little in the midfield, McCabe initially took some adjusting to this new role in 2011.

By the end of the Rugby World Cup, his credentials at inside centre were well and truly established, especially after tackling himself and his shoulder to a heroic standstill in the Wallabies quarter-final triumph over South Africa, and semi-final loss to New Zealand.

McCabe drew – and still draws – criticism for his limited game at no. 12 for the Wallabies in 2011, but in my humble opinion, this criticism doesn’t see the whole picture.

And that is that McCabe’s inside centre role was pure and simply about defence. His job brief was only to provide the Wallabies with a midfield garrison wall, around which they could formulate their defensive systems.

In attack, he was only required to run at the holes Quade Cooper pointed him toward. Remember, he was an outside back playing in, not a fly-half playing one out; he was never going to be required to play like a second five-eighth.

The downside of this was that such a defensive role took a toll, in the form of a shoulder reconstruction that ruled McCabe out of the Wallabies Spring Tour, and delayed his re-entry into Super Rugby until Week three from where he started back on the wing.

All in all, he’s played seven of his nine games in 2012 back at inside centre, and the last month especially has seen him really show his class.

While Christian Lealiifano is – or was, alas, until Saturday night – rightly getting all the plaudits for providing the Brumbies’ creative spark in attack, McCabe’s central role cannot be understated as it was last year.

It’s clear that McCabe is now a focal point of the Brumbies attack. I’ll come back to the Brumbies attacking set-ups against the Waratahs shortly, where even without having anything to show for his efforts, the McCabe presence was enormous.

Go back a few weeks, and you’ll recall the Brumbies demolition job of the Melbourne Rebels. McCabe scored the first try of the night, through a classic ‘crash ball’ run which relegated James O’Connor to the role of speed hump.

It was a big moment in what was billed as a battle between McCabe and O’Connor for the Wallaby no. 12 jersey.

Just before half time, though, was the play that sowed the first seeds for this column. The Brumbies had worked inward on the pick-and-drive, and after six phases, Nic White unleashed the backs.

Lealiifano drifted right, pulled McCabe back on his inside, who from there stepped off his left foot to burst through the tackle of Hugh Pyle and Danny Cipriani, getting an offload away for Ben Mowen to score under the posts.

Interestingly, O’Connor was left completely isolated and defending no-one, as Tevita Kuridrani had stayed wider in case McCabe got the pass away to the right.

This, for me at least, was the confirmation that the man previously chastised for being a one-dimensional bulldozer was taking to inside centre well.

Without knowing McCabe was a converted outside back, in this play he’d shown exactly the pace, footwork, and ball-playing you’d expect from your garden-variety inside centre.

David Campese last week asked rhetorically, “When was the last time you saw a simple loop play executed by an Australian side?” to which I replied, “Christian Lealiifano to Pat McCabe for Jesse Mogg’s try v Bulls is an obvious example. Actually the Brumbies are using the loop play quite regularly, though this one was probably the best result yet…”

And it’s true- the Brumbies do use the loop play a lot now. McCabe is the key man in this, too, for it’s his read of the defenders that determines whether the pass goes to the looping runner, or to the option runner cutting back on the inside.

In that try of Mogg’s – a cracker from a scrum 40m out from the Bulls line – McCabe drew both Morne Steyn and Wynand Olivier into the contest, while Andrew Smith on the angle back toward McCabe drew JJ Englebrecht in as well.

McCabe then did well to find Lealiifano around the back, and by the time Lealiifano took the pass, the Brumbies had a four-on-two overlap. A great set-piece play and excellent vision from the no. 12.

Against the Waratahs, it was interesting how the Brumbies backs took their alignments off McCabe’s positioning.

Though they never got to test this, on numerous occasions they set themselves so that Lealiifano was positioned inside ‘Tahs fly-half Berrick Barnes, and McCabe was stationed wider than Tom Carter, but with option runners around him.

The obvious setup to my eyes was that McCabe was wanting to either isolate Tom Carter as he did James O’Connor those weeks ago, or force Carter into a bad read by bringing the blindside winger in on the inside. In such a defensive game, it would’ve been great to see that set-up play out.

It was noticeable, too, how Lealiifano and McCabe played the Brumbies attack as flat as they have in the last month or so – classic Stephen Larkham planning – with deep outside runners.

In contrast, while Barnes also played a lot flatter than he has this season, he was often up on his own, as Carter and the outside backs stayed back far too deep, and never looked like breaking the advantage line.

McCabe becomes a major cog in keeping the Brumbies rolling after Christian Lealiifano’s terribly unlucky injury. Whoever Jake White slots into his no. 10 jersey will know that McCabe remains the hub in attack, and that he provides the width and options for the outside men.

Ben Tapuai may well have been the form Australian inside centre prior to breaking his collarbone, but Pat McCabe has well and truly taken up that mantle now.

McCabe has shown enough already this season to suggest he’s becoming a genuine, quality no. 12. The days of the crash-runner are long gone; the Brumbies are reaping the benefits of McCabe’s extra dimensions now, and the Wallabies will too soon enough.

Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-first-grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009, Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport
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