Pat McCabe now a bona fide No.12

Brett McKay Columnist

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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
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.

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    The Crowd Says (143)

    • May 8th 2012 @ 1:06am
      sportym said | May 8th 2012 @ 1:06am | ! Report

      Great article Brett. Completely agree with you that Mccabe has become a genuine 12. I still respect him for the guts he showed in the RWC, wish we had more player like him instead of some of the show ponies that went missing last year.

    • May 8th 2012 @ 1:22am
      Stan grella said | May 8th 2012 @ 1:22am | ! Report

      He is fantastic fir the brumbies, but the article ignores that his game is not suited to internationa rugby, McCabe at 12 for Australia reduces the ability to score try’s.

      Also highlighting his stepping of cippers and JOC arnt great reasons, both guys have terrible defense, JOC isn’t picked at 12 for the Wobs as he is hopeless when on his own in the frontline.

      McCabe is exactly what the brumbies need, I just don’t think he os the answer fir the wallabies.

    • May 8th 2012 @ 3:35am
      King of the Gorgonites said | May 8th 2012 @ 3:35am | ! Report

      When Robbie deans played McCabe at 12 it was a master stroke. McCabe won us the rwc quarter final against the books. Simple as that. The injury to Barnes also meant their was no other option. However, some people still run the argument that dingo cost us the rwc because he got the centre combination wrong. This is absolute rubbish. McCabe was a brilliant call.

      Really enjoying the brumbies this year. Great to see the crowds flocking back. Perhaps the tahs need a saffa ref?

      As Brett points out, McCabe has to be the wallaby 12. He is the perfect player to build a wallaby back line around.

      • May 8th 2012 @ 7:22am
        kingplaymaker said | May 8th 2012 @ 7:22am | ! Report

        KOG who would you have at 13? For me AAC is long gone as a player while Faiingaa is too anonymous in attack. Obviously more than one player could be tried out especially with all these Wales and Scotland tests.

      • May 8th 2012 @ 7:37am
        Justin said | May 8th 2012 @ 7:37am | ! Report

        So by that theory he also lost us the Irish match… he was woeful there. It wasnt a Deans master stroke at all. If McCabe was there purely for defense then he should have been on the wing in attack as he was next to useless in 2011 with ball in hand. AF has a much better attacking combination with QC than anyoen else and would have played much better in attack at 12 than PM.

        • May 8th 2012 @ 3:23pm
          Jutsie said | May 8th 2012 @ 3:23pm | ! Report

          C’mon justin give credit where its due. Its been well documented that our stock in the 12 department were quite bare last year.

          At least mccabe bent the line with crash ball and defended with heart and venom. We lost the Ireland game as our forward pack was cack. Mccabe getting held up was just a result of genia/cooper giving him hospital balls due to a back pedalling pack.

      • May 8th 2012 @ 8:33am
        Riccardo said | May 8th 2012 @ 8:33am | ! Report


        No doubt McCabe’s defence was instrumental in that win although most Bok fans will still argue about Bryce Lawrence’s influence on the game.

        But it was an immense masterclass peformance from Pocock that won it for the Wallabies that day.

        In fact, the All Blacks chose to run the ball AT Pocock in the semi to specifically counter a repeat. As 1st tackler he was less effective and we all know how it panned out…

    • May 8th 2012 @ 4:15am
      bluerose said | May 8th 2012 @ 4:15am | ! Report

      now its time to find a suitable outside center, my early Xmas wish is for JW to give Tomane a trial at #13 with Kuridrani shifting to the wing

      • May 8th 2012 @ 6:17am
        Red Kev said | May 8th 2012 @ 6:17am | ! Report

        Tapuai is the best genuine centre in Australia and should be playing 13 for the Wallabies. With him injured I agree that Tomane would be a good choice to trial there. I think for the June tests AAC and Cummins are the likely men though.

        • May 8th 2012 @ 9:50am
          Markus said | May 8th 2012 @ 9:50am | ! Report

          I thought Tapuai was playing better at 12 than 13, but I agree that on form he has been the best centre in either position.

          And my idea at the start of the year was for Tomane to move to 13 in the next 12 months, but after seeing how strong he is under the attacking highball, it may even be of benefit to keep him wider.
          His tackle breaking and offloading would be well suited to 13 though, I think a full season in club rugby in the position could actually do more to develop his defense than warming the bench on EOY tour.

    • May 8th 2012 @ 6:16am
      Sailosi said | May 8th 2012 @ 6:16am | ! Report

      Bluerose, you don’t like smith?

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        May 8th 2012 @ 8:42am
        Grimmace said | May 8th 2012 @ 8:42am | ! Report

        I recon Smith and Speight are the 2 most improved backs in Australia. Smith is also not geting the praise he deserves

      • May 8th 2012 @ 1:35pm
        bluerose said | May 8th 2012 @ 1:35pm | ! Report

        Smith is alright but i feel he is a bit slow compared to others in the competition, Tomane has speed, power and explosiveness that the Wallabies needs,

    • May 8th 2012 @ 6:22am
      Demers said | May 8th 2012 @ 6:22am | ! Report

      The book on McCabe in internationals says: great defence, not much penetration. Hold on, Brett, before you start rounding up six men for a firing squad, let me explain. McCabe is a FB who filled in at centre and did a pretty good job, but is he what we need in midfield? If, next month, Genia is back to his best, and Beale at 10 stays at his best, what happens when Beale passes to McCabe? The attack slows unless Dingo wants a crash ball which is not what the Wallabies are famous for. Speed and guile is our game. The SMH said last week that McCabe and Horne would probably play 12 and 13, but Horne, another great defender, never became the great attacking player everybody hoped to see.

      I think bluerose is closer to the ideal which for me would be AAC at 12 – he can play anywhere and whether he’s blowing hot or cold always makes the team – and go with Kuridrani at 13. Mogg is my 15 to run onto Beale’s grubbers as Beale used to do off Quade’s grubbers.

      Why Tevita K? Because we have the expanded TN coming up after the Welsh go home, then next year THE BIG ONE when the Lions arrive. We’ll never know if he’s test material till we give him a shot. But I’m resigned to seeing Pat and AAC in the midfield against Wales.
      It’s a safe combo if a little dull and safety rules in test rugby.

      • May 8th 2012 @ 6:56am
        Ben S said | May 8th 2012 @ 6:56am | ! Report

        Nathan Grey and Daniel Herbert were pretty crash ball.

        • May 8th 2012 @ 7:40am
          Justin said | May 8th 2012 @ 7:40am | ! Report

          They knew how to run at holes though. Running straight at am man time and again is a sure way to slow down the attack.

      • May 8th 2012 @ 9:58am
        Markus said | May 8th 2012 @ 9:58am | ! Report

        Horne never became the great defender he was raved about either. Before his suspension he was still in the top 3 for missed tackles this season.

        • May 8th 2012 @ 1:42pm
          jrsONE said | May 8th 2012 @ 1:42pm | ! Report

          Also towards the top of the list for tackles made though. He never hides from his work, and defending outside Tom Carter is enough to make anyone miss a few.

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