The evolution of the rugby backline
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Australia's Matt Giteau, right, fails to handle the ball with pressure from Samoa's George Pisi during their rugby union test match in Sydney, Sunday, July 17, 2011. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
Sometime in the 90s, I vaguely recall the rugby powers that be sending out a message to all that the new names for the no. 12 and no. 13 would now be known as ‘left centre’ and ‘right centre’ respectively.
I do recall thinking, ‘well that makes sense’. I felt this was just the next step in the evolution of backlines moving into the professional era.
How wrong I was. This centre-a-side rugby league copycat idea never really caught on and pretty soon it was forgotten, but where they simply predicting the future?
Historically speaking, most northern hemisphere teams played a ‘bullock’ at 12 and an ‘athlete’ at 13, referring to them as they preferred, as inside and outside centre. Think Carling and Guscott as the perfect example and forget that for ridiculous sentimental reasons Carling wore the 13 and Guscott wore the 12.
Most southern hemisphere sides with more expansive intentions, have preferred a second five-eighth/ second fly half/ball playing inside centre (which ever you wish to call it) to partner an outside centre. Think Tim Horan and Jason Little.
But as the game has transcended into professionalism, the environment became different. As Darwin once said, “In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment”.
Since rugby went professional, you may have noticed that generally all Test teams have moved away from the ball playing no 12. They seemingly now prefer the powerful ball carrying, dominant defending option. Even Australia, finally with Pat McCabe, have evolved to follow suit. With McCabe’s inclusion into the Wallaby leadership group that tactic is set to remain in place for some time.
For many years, the thinkers of Test match rugby have recognised that a Matt Giteau at 12, despite all that he offers, doesn’t work for the majority of Test rugby minutes. On the other hand a Jamie Roberts at 12 does.
Unfortunately for Australia, this has been a lesson learned slowly. This was evident by a consistent lack of productivity in the success department. The idea of Matt Giteau or Berrick Barnes carving up opposition defensive lines is one thing, but has it really ever happened? If it did, it didn’t happen often enough.
The current calls for a return to the ball playing 12 are merely a desire to head back to a nostalgically perceived golden era where ball playing no. 12s helped carve up their amateur rivals.
Those days died when the accountants, estate agents and lawyers that played rugby were forced to give up their day jobs and join the world of professional sport. The days of the ball playing no. 12 have gone with the Dodo because in the land of the giants, bigger is better.
But is the evolution of the centre pairing complete and if not where is it heading?
By watching the various centre pairings in world rugby this month, I have been drawn to the thought first suggested by the rugby powers all those years ago. We may have seen glimpses of the next logical step in centre pairing evolution, the tactic of selecting prototypical centres and playing centre-a-side.
It was interesting that Earls and O’Driscoll played the centre-a-side style against the All Blacks in the first Test. I thought it was a shame that Earl’s injury meant from the second Test they went back to their traditional formation.
At times, the new English pairing of Tuilagi and Joseph, probably more through accident than any tactical brilliance, have played on opposite sides of the pitch. This positioning makes sense.
The Wallabies certainly had McCabe and Horne playing centre-a-side for the Wallabies, particularly in defence and sometimes in attack from phase ball.
A centre-a-side pairing does not have much significance in first phase play from a set piece. But we are in the age of phase play and in phase play at least, it will revolutionise the way in which teams as a whole approach the game. Teams would no doubt stop playing the one-way rugby that they do, which often results in running themselves into touch.
Instead, the emphasis would be to use the pack to move up through the centre of the field with an option of attacking either side of the ruck, using one of the centres as the main fulcrum of attack.
In defence, many coaches could get more sleep at night knowing someone will always be on the left or the right of field shutting down any wide attacking raids.
Whether the centres have already now reached their evolutionary peak, or if the centre-a-side theory is going to become the norm, one thing that must take place is that the second play-maker must come from somewhere else.
In my opinion it already has. The Wallabies and sometime the South Africans are setting the standard in picking their best two fly halves and playing the first at no 10 and the second at no 15. With this tactic combined, with the like for like centres, you have the best of both worlds and it may not be long before others follow suit.
The last thing that is changing is the back three is no longer the back three, for the Wallabies at-least. We’ve just seen a series where the no’s 9, 10 and 15 cover the back three positions in defence, in most scenarios, allowing the wingers to stay up in the line and track back in support.
The game of rugby union is one of those sports that is forever changing to the point I doubt it would be recognisable to each separate generation that has gone before the other. This means that rugby is always exciting and evolving. I hope that, in this respect, change is the only thing that doesn’t change so that rugby can continue to evolve.