Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Rugby's Inside Job - Who Hitches a Thoroughbred to the Plough?

There’s a fascinating article about Gordon D’Arcy in today’s Irish Independent that solves many of the mysteries about the man. Kieran Rooney’s excellent analysis is that, contrary to opinion after five o’clock GMT last Sunday, D’Arcy has not come from nowhere at all – he has been giving several chances to step up to International level before this, and he’s made a bags of them all. D’Arcy was the king of the unforced error in his previous incarnations at wing or at full-back; now, due to the injury to Brian O’Driscoll forcing Gary Ella to play D’Arcy at outside centre for Leinster, D’Arcy has bloomed, as outside centre gives D’Arcy less chance for reflection, which doesn’t suit him. At centre D’Arcy can play his natural game, and Ireland is all the better for it as a result.

Up to a point, Lord Copper. What seems to be forgotten in the rush to canonise D’Arcy is the way that Ireland are wasting the prodigious talents of Brian O’Driscoll. O’Driscoll is one of the best players in the world right now – if anybody names a World XV, O’Driscoll is handed the 13 jersey and no questions are asked. The Welsh game was further proof of his genius – two tries, the amazing strength of the man, and, what always impresses me about O’Driscoll, the man is so relaxed. He could have been going for a Saturday afternoon kickaround instead of trying to save Ireland’s season. He’s always smiling, always relaxed before a game, as he knows he belongs on the Great Stages. The man’s genius is unparalleled, thus leading anyone with eyes to see to wonder why in God’s name would anyone waste him at inside centre?

There are two ways of considering the position of inside centre on the rugby team. The first is to consider him as an auxiliary stand-off half, the second five-eighth of the Southern Hemisphere teams. This is a common designation, as a lot of inside centres have been fly-halves; Michael Lynagh played at 12 for Australia when Mark Ella was fly-half, Paul Dean played at 12 for Ollie Campbell at 10, and even Campbell himself played inside centre once or twice in the late seventies, on the very few occasions that he and Tony Ward played together. Mike Catt behind Jonny Wilkinson – the list goes on and on.

However, the most interesting, and lasting evolution, of the inside centre position occurred on the all-conquering All-Black Tour of 1967, when New Zealand swept all before them. In 1967, kicks could still go into touch on the full, meaning that the games were grim, hard and tight. It became virtually impossible for teams to score off first phase ball – from scrums and lineouts – so what New Zealand did was launch their attacks from the second phase. First phase position went out to Ian MacRae at inside centre, MacRae went straight ahead with the ball under his oxter, and when he was tackled, the All-Blacks rucked the ball back and attacked wide, the cover having being sucked towards the ruck. Easy peasy.

The All-Black rucking was spectacular on that 1967 tour – Gareth Edwards made his debut for Wales as a teenager in 1967, and he wrote in his autobiography that getting caught at the bottom of a New Zealand ruck was “like getting caught in a combine harvester” – but for our purposes the role of MacRae at inside centre on that tour is important. MacRae redefined the position – in an ideal world the inside centre is a second five-eighth, an auxiliary fly-half, but, when you need to establish a possession platform, the inside centre is a human drill-bit, burrowing his way through the opposition and giving the pack a target for the ruck. Ireland have used inside centres like this before – those dour Ulstermen, Davy Irwin of the eighties and Maurice Field, the fireman from Malone, in the nineties spring to mind – and what’s concerning An Spailpín more than somewhat is exactly what sort of inside centre Ireland expects O’Driscoll to be.

In these times of outhalf debates every time the team is named, how interesting it is that neither Ronan O’Gara nor David Humphries have been picked at inside centre. The sad fact is that Ireland do not have two world class outhalves battling for the 10 shirt but two men of whom neither can rise sufficiently high above mediocre to grab the shirt and not let go. O’Gara has youth on his side and may improve, but otherwise, the prospects are bleak.

Brian O’Driscoll is not an outhalf. If he was, Gary Ella would certainly have giving him a run there for Leinster after the Contreponi fiasco. What Brian O’Driscoll is, above all, is a strike runner. What O’Driscoll has is explosive acceleration, incredible change of pace, phenomenal strength and tremendous balance – the blueprint for an outside centre who can break the gain line and cut through the opposition right through their heart. Talents like O’Driscoll’s do not arrive often, and when they do, they should be cherished. As such, when the Irish pack have secured ball off a ruck, it should be popped out to O’Driscoll straight away, but, if he’s selected at inside centre, that can’t happen in Twickenham as he’ll be at the bottom of the ruck that started it all. Drawing water is no way to treat a thoroughbred, but that is the policy that the Irish management seem set on. Why that is I can’t understand, and I fear that we will pay dearly for it down the road - Rugby Road, Twickenham, TW1 1DS to be precise.