There are several positions on the rugby pitch where Australian starting players would struggle to make the squads at New Zealand Super Rugby franchises.
Happily, the centre or #13 spot is not one of them.
Rob Horne is solid for the Waratahs (and has been for some seasons), while Tom English has completed a successful conversion from the wing to centre in Melbourne. For newcomer Curtis Rona, the positives have far outweighed the negatives after his transfer from league’s Canterbury Bulldogs to the Western Force.
The icing on the top of the cake is that Michael Cheika can call on two top-quality operators for the Wallabies, in the shape of established 44-cap international Tevita Kuridrani in Canberra and rising star Samu Kerevi at the Queensland Reds.
Centre is one position in which the All Blacks’ coaching staff would give serious consideration to selecting a Wallaby – were he available to them – in their forthcoming series against the British and Irish Lions.
Kuridrani and Kerevi are both very big men, who wield a big stick in terms of physicality and power.
Both weigh in at well over 100 kgs and are able to threaten the advantage line on first phase from set-piece. This, in turn, gives their teams the option to select a second distributor at #12 – Duncan Paia’aua for the Reds, Kyle Godwin for the Brumbies, potentially Kurtley Beale for the Wallabies.
The ultimate role model for big men in midfield in the modern game is Ma’a Nonu. After missing out on New Zealand’s disastrous 2007 World Cup campaign, Graham Henry decided to move Nonu from centre to second five-eighth, with Conrad Smith in the #13 jersey, and New Zealand have never looked back.
During the 68 games they played together for the All Blacks over an eight-year span, Nonu and Smith were only on the losing side five times.
The development program Nonu had to undertake in order to become the #12 Henry wanted cannot be underestimated; he had to climb rugby’s equivalent of Mount Everest. Henry always selected a playmaker at second five-eighth previously, until the seismic upheaval of the 2007 World Cup sent shockwaves through his rugby thinking. Luke McAlister and Aaron Mauger (both players with extensive experience in the #10 jersey) were the incumbents up until that ill-fated quarter-final in Cardiff.
Nonu had to learn the requirements of long passing, a positional kicking game and footwork in heavy traffic in order to succeed at the new spot, and to his eternal credit he managed it all while maintaining the advantages of the ‘big body’ in contact situations.
Kerevi is built along the same lines as Nonu. Both are listed at 108 kgs, while Kerevi is by four centimetres the taller of the two, at 1.86m.
So can Kerevi follow Nonu’s path and shift inside?
At the moment there is precious little evidence of either the deft long-passing or tactical kicking games necessary to implement the transition successfully – but with Mick Byrne (kicking) and Steve Larkham (passing) both entrenched in the Wallaby coaching hierarchy, there is sound reason to believe that those skills can be taught over time.
There are however, plenty of promising signs that Kerevi has already picked up the third element – footwork in traffic.
Footwork before contact is what makes a big man a really potent attacking force in tight spaces.
Although Kuridrani is generally misunderstood as solely a straight-line, crash-ball merchant, he too has the ability to change direction within a couple of strides in order to defeat a defender. On the 2016 end-of-year tour, Kuridrani’s footwork was at the heart of the Wallabies’ final go-ahead score against Scotland in the 76th minute.
It is first-phase lineout and there is a defender rapidly closing him down. Kuridrani’s objective is that he is trying to build a scenario where he is running through an arm-tackle. That is where he knows that his power and size will be at its most effective, when he is running through an arm, rather than trying to bulldoze an entire body.
In order to create the arm-tackle scenario, Kuridrani approaches the defender (Scotland’s Peter Horne) square-on, with a ‘bounce’ in the stride before contact, which means that as his feet leave the ground, he can go either way (first screenshot).
Horne’s centre of gravity is forward and he is aligned on the inside half of Kuridrani’s body. If Kuridrani can change direction within two strides, there will be space in the outside gap (“1” in the first screenshot).
Kuridrani’s first stride takes him further away from Horne and into the arm-tackle ‘hot zone’ (second screenshot). By the third he is already through the gap and it is too late for the defender to recover.
Wide receivers and running backs in American football are specifically trained to beat a one-on-one tackle within two steps. Any more than that, and the tackler has time to adjust. The following video gives a flavour of the supple movement, quick feet, and rapid changes of direction of which they are capable:
In the Rebels-Reds game, from the point of view of offensive statistics, Kerevi had a day to remember. He racked up 150 metres on 15 carries, scoring two tries and making two try assists (one of which was hauled back for a forward pass by George Smith), in addition to four clean breaks, nine defenders beaten, three offloads, and one fumble recovery for good measure.
Much of his impact was derived from the same ability Kuridrani flashed against Scotland – to change direction within two strides, and expose a defender. Just like Kuridrani, he did it ‘in the clutch’ with the fate of the game on the line:
The score and the movement which produced it are carbon copies of the Kuridrani version against Scotland. The initial ‘bounce before contact’ versus a defender (the Rebels’ #7 Will Miller) whose momentum is forward and aligned on the inside half of the attacker’s body, the two-step shift outside through an arm-tackle and into space, are all exactly the same.
In real time, Kerevi’s movement can be observed from the end-on angle at the end of the official highlight reel from the match.
This was not the only occasion in the game where Kerevi’s footwork created an opportunity for the Reds.
Another step-and-offload is enough to generate space for the scoring pass to Scott Higginbotham in the 49th minute (again viewed from behind the posts in slo-mo at 2:01 on the reel).
A sequence from early in the game illustrated Kerevi’s ability to step in the opposite direction – back inside and ‘against the grain’ – versus one the Rebels’ most accurate back-line defenders, left wing Marika Koroibete:
Here Koroibete is in good position to contain the cutback off Kerevi’s left foot, but the bounce-and-step is still sharp enough to draw an arm tackle and create a clean bust down the middle of the field anyway.
One final example showed how quickly Kerevi reads the play and gets into his two-step evasive manoeuvre:
In the first couple of screenshots, Kerevi is anticipating Koroibete’s angle, jamming in off the outside edge. He is into his ‘bounce’ early, cutting back inside Koroibete and creating enough space to deliver an offload out of his right hand to Quade Cooper circling around for a second touch in the movement – and that usually spells danger for the defence!
Kurtley Beale and Karmichael Hunt will both be the wrong side of 30 when the 2019 World Cup in Japan swings around, so the long-term selection plans in the centres will make for fascinating viewing.
Does Cheika envisage ‘double K’, with both Kurtley and Karmichael in the back-line at 12 and 15 respectively? Or will he see it with the two Fijians, Kerevi and Kuridrani, partnering each other at 12 and 13 instead?
For the latter to occur, it will require a monumental effort in skills development by Kerevi, following the illustrious example of Ma’a Nonu. The good news is that Kerevi already has added razor-sharp footwork and offloading ability to his natural power and size.
If Mick Byrne can coax a kicking game, and Stephen Larkham some accurate long passing skills, Kerevi will become an all-rounder in the Nonu mould and render the selection of a second playmaker at #12 obsolete.
The defence will be automatically upgraded with Kerevi and Kuridrani outside Michael Hooper from lineouts, and Australia will finally have a Wallaby of the very highest All Black quality at the centre of their back-line.
It is a mouth-watering thought, even if there are several bridges yet to be crossed.