Having left the half-backs behind with our look at the fly-half position, we now turn our attentions to the midfield proper, with an examination of the roles and responsibilities that are required at inside centre.
There is scope for a number of different playstyles at the position, which make locking down the key attributes at 12 challenging, though there are some that are absolutes and that any player playing the position must have if they want to thrive in the role.
As ever, we have identified five of those key attributes below and highlighted the players who currently best exhibit those qualities on the pitch.
One of the primary abilities an inside centre needs to bring is success at the gain-line as a ball-carrier. It doesn’t have to be by running through and over defenders, although with space often limited at the position by aggressive defences, there needs to be an element of being able to win those collisions when necessary.
Few players are as competent ball-carriers as New Zealand’s Ngani Laumape, with the centre having dazzled in Super Rugby prior to his international debut in 2017. A wealth of midfield options means that Laumape is not always a regular for the All Blacks, though his ball-carrying skills are as adept as anyone that New Zealand can call upon, with the Hurricane able to evade contact as well as he can find it.
Linked very much to that ability to be a ball-carrier, physicality is also key for any inside centre, with the aforementioned lack of space and requirement to take contact sometimes unavoidable. That power is not only generated through size, but also through a player’s speed and their footwork prior to and during contact.
Not many can match the physicality that Australia’s Samu Kerevi is able to bring to bear and plenty of would-be tacklers have been left red-faced in their attempts to bring him down. Whether at 12 or 13, Kerevi is a consistent source of gain-line success, most of which leave a broken tackle or two in his wake. An honourable mention, too, for the defensive physicality that former England centre Brad Barritt frequently puts on display.
As with the scrum-half and fly-half positions, decision-making is another key attribute for inside centres. Along with the two half-back positions, inside centres are responsible for finding and creating space in attack, rather than eating it up themselves, and making the right decisions at the right time on the pitch allows them to do this.
New Zealand’s Anton Lienert-Brown ticks that box emphatically, with the rounded attacking skill set to hurt teams as a ball-carrier or as a distributor, and the game understanding to know when each is required. Furthermore, his defensive decision-making is also very impressive and the All Black midfield and back line will not regularly find themselves outnumbered or out of position because of the Chief’s decisions on that side of the ball.
As mentioned earlier with the premium on space at the position, inside centres are often required to work in more congested parts of the field and as such, acceleration plays a key role in their success. In these areas, the ability to quickly move through the gears is much more important than what they can achieve in the top gear and can be the difference between finding a chink in the armour of a well-drilled defensive unit or not.
In South Africa’s Damian de Allende, you have a premium example of this ‘shiftyness’ and it proved vital to the Springboks at the recent Rugby World Cup. He is able to find swiftly closing holes in defensive lines thanks to his acceleration and his footwork, and the puncturing of a defence that he is able to achieve sucks in more defenders and creates space and opportunities for other players in subsequent phases.
Lastly, we come to ball-handling. As it is with any position on the pitch, it’s important for an inside centre to be able to competently move the ball and find players in more opportune positions than themselves. Some teams will sacrifice this for a pure ball-carrier at the position, but plenty of others go completely the other way and deploy dual playmakers at the 10 and 12 positions.
The Swiss Army Knife of the Australian back line, Kurtley Beale brings this skill set to every position he plays, but arguably none as successfully so as he does when playing inside centre. The accuracy of his passing and offloading are exemplary, and complement his ability to carry the ball, too, frequently forcing teams to pick their poison when facing the Wallaby.
Ball-carrying – Ngani Laumape
Physicality – Samu Kerevi
Decision-making – Anton Lienert-Brown
Acceleration – Damian de Allende
Ball-handling – Kurtley Beale
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