I think it’s fair to say that inside centre is a sizeable problem for the Wallabies. Not since Tim Horan have we had someone dominate the position, and the last person to play there with any real consistency was Matt Giteau. I would hazard a guess that we’ve had more players come and go at 12 than any other position over the last decade or so. This is understandable in the context of the modern game, with inside centres required to make plenty of tackles on increasingly bigger bodies.
The majority of top tier international sides have moved away from dual playmakers at 10 and 12 in response to the greater challenge of getting over the gain line. That’s not to say that you just want a big battering ram. Ask the miso soup what she prefers when it comes to size and power versus soft, quick hands and she’ll set you right; get you a man who can do both.
Ma’a Nonu is the quintessential example of this kind of player, and it’s no coincidence that he’s back in NZ just before a World Cup. I’m not sure I want to know what lengths the Wallabies would go to secure a player of his calibre, although given our selection policy over the last four years I’m not 100% sure he would get a run. Australia appears to be one of the only top tier nations still running dual playmakers at 10 and 12, and it’s hurting us.
Last year was a particularly grim year for players in the Wallaby 12, with Kurtley Beale looking battered and bruised after only two tests, and the less said the better about Bernard Foley’s cameo. Injuries to key players at outside centre didn’t help matters for poor Kurtley, but I think most punters are starting to agree that if the Wallabies are to be successful again we need a 12 who is better suited to the rigours of the position.
So who’ve we got?
Let’s get the incumbent out of the way. I think he’s been getting the rough end of the stick lately, in that he’s playing out of position. People have forgotten how dangerous he was at fullback when he first started playing for the Wallabies, and while moving him to inside centre has created moments of brilliance, it hasn’t worked out. The defensive load is too much for him, and because he is getting the ball with so many bodies in front of him he often crabs across the field. I would push him to 15 with Israel Folau moving to the wing, but I can’t see Cheika making that call (or one like it) just before the World Cup.
Gotta be honest, I don’t see this working either. Toomua is a pure playmaker and should have been given more minutes at 10 for the Wallabies last year. I guess part of the attraction of him at 12 is that he is a reliable defender, but I would rather have that quality at 10 so we can do away with this system of hiding defenders.
This option has a lot of positives. Kerevi goes hard at the gain line, looks to offload and is constantly improving his ball playing. He isn’t the best decision maker we have in defense so moving him to 12 protects him somewhat from that responsibility. For mine his selection at inside centre will depend predominantly on who runs the show inside him. He doesn’t always combine well with someone like Quade Cooper, as he appears to work better off early ball while Quade prefers to give it closer to the line. If we see Foley or Toomua in the 10 jersey I think a centre pairing of Kerevi and Jordan Petaia would put bums on seats.
If you’ve listened to the Pillar to Post podcast at all in the past year, you will know that I have a big ol’ player crush on Meakes. He solves a number of problems in the Wallabies backline as he plays direct, is comfortable shifting it, and is very reliable in defense. He’s just a good all-rounder and we are seeing at the Rebels how that can bring out the best in a player like Quade. If the prodigal son does return at 10, I would hope the selectors go with a Meakes and Kuridrani centre pairing, but at the end of the day, Meakes and the next bloke on this list would vibe well with any of our playmakers.
Hunt is exactly what the Waratahs needed in their midfield after failing to go the distance last year. There are few better players in Australia at straightening the line, and he is more than comfortable with the physical stuff. Unfortunately, expect Hunt to feature almost anywhere but 12 when Beale is on the park. This is a shame, as for Hunt to be in contention for the Wallaby 12 position he needs regular game time there.
I know, I know, it’s wishful thinking as he doesn’t qualify. However, after watching some Sale games earlier this year, O’Connor seems to have developed into the sort of player the Wallabies need at 12. He has always had a good kicking game, but his time in Europe has improved his physicality and he now looks – and plays – big enough for the job. Sale isn’t using him as a battering ram, rather having him in wider channels where they can make the most of his good hands and put away the outside backs. I would love for him to be back in the mix just on the strength of his versatility, but time will tell whether all bridges have been burned and an Australian team signs him before the World Cup.
(I haven’t considered Duncan Paia’aua despite being a real prospect at 12, as he has signed for Toulon)
So there are clearly plenty of options, but who gets the Guernsey?
First and foremost, for the Wallabies to be competitive we need to move away from the dual playmaker system. The battle for the gain line is getting increasingly difficult, and a 12 that can bend the line and throw a silky cutout is now par for the course. Unsurprisingly, it may boil down to who wears the 10 jersey deciding the man outside him, and it is fortuitous that players like Cooper and Lealiifano are hitting form which may shake up the status quo.
Kerevi probably has the most runs on the board with Cheika, but may not be the best choice if Cooper forces his way into the team, opening the door for Meakes or Hunt. I doubt Cheika will rock the boat all that much leading into the World Cup, which means we’ll likely see Foley or Toomua at 10. With either at the pivotal position, I would hope that one of Kerevi, Meakes or Hunt lines up beside them, bringing some physicality and dependability to a position that has lacked it for far too long.
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