Ian Madigan

Ian Madigan in Leinster colours. (c) Martin Dobey.

One of the more interesting head-to-heads during last month’s Pro 12 final was that at inside centre. While neither Ian Madigan nor Stuart Olding had a decisive impact on the outcome of that particular game, their futures in the position hold exciting possibilities for Irish rugby. Alongside JJ Hanrahan at Munster, these young players offer something different to the common concept of an inside centre.

The traditional view is that a 12 is someone to get your team over the advantage line, a big man who runs direct lines and takes out a few defenders. Jamie Roberts of Wales and Munster’s James Downey are fine examples of this ‘classic’ inside centre. These guys are 6ft 4ins and weigh around 110kg. While they are expected to offload out of the tackle, their main role is to get their team onto the front foot.

The trio of Olding (20), Madigan (24) and Hanrahan (20) come from an altogether different mould. Physically they are remarkably similar, standing at roughly 5ft 11ins and weighing around 90kg. In modern rugby, where giants like George North roam in wide spaces, these young Irish backs are a refreshing blast from the past.

It’s not really an issue of size here though, rather the different strengths that these talented youngsters offer. All three are versatile. Madigan has started at 10, 12 and 15 for Leinster. Olding has played at 10 and 12 for Ulster, but has experience at 13 and 15 at underage level. Hanrahan has been picked for Munster at 10 and 12. He too has the tools to play 15.

These are multi-skilled, complete players. What it means is that when they line out at 12 for their provinces, they offer a broad range of abilities outside the traditional role of a bosh merchant. All three are excellent playmakers. They share passing skills, vision, awareness of space and the ability to beat defenders with footwork rather than pure brawn.

JJ Hanrahan arrives copy

Hanrahan on debut for Munster this season. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

The development of the role of the inside centre is not confined to Ireland. At Toulon, the Australian Matt Giteau is the attacking playmaker in their backline. He too has a versatile past, having played 10, 12 and even 9 at the highest level. The positioning of a creative player at inside centre is popular in the Southern Hemisphere, where the 12 is often referred to as the ‘second-five-eighth’.

The perceived downside of having a smaller man at inside centre is a physical disadvantage. Of the trio highlighted here, Olding is probably the most effective ball carrier in traffic. His balance and footwork mean he is rarely smashed. But as Madigan showed on Saturday, he is more than willing to bash it up the middle when that’s required. Defensively, all three players are brave and make their tackles.

The positioning of Hanrahan and Madigan in the centre this season has to some extent been a case of needs must. With Ronan O’Gara and Jonny Sexton owning the outhalf positions at provincial level, the youngsters have had to fit in elsewhere. Next season, Madigan will be wearing 10 for Leinster, but Sexton will continue to block his way with the Ireland team.

At Munster, Ian Keatley will expect to be next in line at outhalf. For Ulster, Paddy Jackson looks being the number 10 for years to come.  Olding will also have to compete with Luke Marshall, another who had a superb season. But moving forward, there is real value in keeping Madigan, Olding and Hanrahan at ‘second-five-eighth’.

Ireland is blessed with a stockpile of strike-running talent out wide at the moment. The likes of Tommy Bowe, Simon Zebo, Craig Gilroy, Rob Kearney, Andrew Conway and Luke Fitzgerald need the ball in their hands as often as possible. With a distributing 12 on the pitch, the possibilities are thrilling.

Not only do Madigan, Hanrahan and Olding offer the passing game to get the ball wide quickly, they also possess the subtle vision and sleight of hand to slip these runners into gaps when they roam infield.

Whether through fluke or foresight, the Irish provinces have developed the role of the inside centre this season. The attacking variations that could result under Joe Schmidt are hugely exciting for Irish rugby.

Olding and Madigan are in North America with Ireland at the moment, where it looks as though Madigan will be seen as an outhalf. Strangely, Hanrahan isn’t in the Emerging Ireland squad for the Tbilisi Cup. Perhaps a big pre-season awaits?


Photos: Ivan O’Riordan, Martin Dobey.

22 responses to “Second-Five-Eighth

  1. No mention of McSharry?

    • Not here. Think he’s a different type of player to the three guys looked at in more detail here. More direct, a better ball-carrier and defensive leader. He’s a brilliant young player and definitely an option for Ireland moving forward. This piece looks at the guys who can fit into a playmaking role at 12.

  2. Luke Marshall is only mentioned in passing? I think he can definitely deliver as a second five eighth as he grow up playing ten against Paddy Jackson.

    That guy has everything, and the ability and intelligence to adapt his game to any style of 12 that is required.

    On Olding, while he has played 13 and 15, neither of which were particularly successful. And from my viewing, he seems to tailor his game when he plays inside centre to the demands of what he thinks the position needs as opposed to using the full range of his talents.

    I love the idea of the Second Five Eighth, long may it continue

    • Marshall is Ireland’s first-choice 12 for me right now, so the intention was to look at the options behind him, and the idea of really changing how Ireland use their 12.

      He has played 10, but I don’t think his long passing and kicking skills are quite as strong as the three guys mentioned above. I wouldn’t see him at 12 as having a second outhalf on the pitch. Having said that, he is a really intelligent footballer and probably comes under the second-five-eighth moniker too. His carrying is easily the best of any of them.

      Would there be any future in playing Marshall at 13 outside someone to slip him through the line?

      • I first saw Marshall for Ulster, his passing and kicking skills were very good, I think given time that will be better, and they are as good as Olding’s at least. Madigan’s pass is still one of the best in Europe though.

        Madigan is more of an outhalf than Olding or Marshall so his kicking would want to be better.

        To me, Olding hasn’t shown much at 12 other than an extremely good running game and step, whereas Marshall is a strong ball carrier, good passer, great defender and can act as an extra flanker a la BOD and D’Arcy.

        I’m not convinced about the idea of Marshall at 13, of all mentioned, either McSharry or Olding would be better there.

  3. Chogan (@Cillian_Hogan)

    If Schmidt does go the 2nd 5/8th route, which I believe he will, I can’t see PJ making the Irish 23 at all.
    10 J.Sexton
    12 L.Marshall
    22. I.Madigan

    Of course a lot rest on Marshall’s head.

    • It’s a good point. Hopefully the summer’s rest will have sorted out Marshall’s concussion problems. Fingers crossed.

      On PJ, thought he came back towards his best form right at the end of the season. Will be interesting to see how he goes in North America. He’s still an excellent prospect and the most important thing is that all of these options keep progressing with their provinces next season.

  4. Has anyone told Gordon D’Arcy that he’s been retired?

    • Not sure if this one is tongue in cheek?! Not trying to suggest that he’ll have no role to play for Ireland, just having a look at some of the options for the future. The three guys in the article above aren’t even first-choice for their provinces yet, never mind ahead of D’Arcy. They do offer something different though.

  5. I like the idea of a more creative 12. As you say we have a fairly electric set of outside backs and getting the ball in their hands is important. However we are lacking a natural openside to allow our inside centres the “luxury” of creating space and distributing for those outside. Because Heaslip is being used as a 7 1/2 and O’Brien is a 6 1/2 the go forward ball needs to be provided by a collective group including Healy, Ryan, O’ Brien and Heaslip as well as both centres. Long story short we need to find a backrow that has more defined roles thus relieving our 6 and 8 to carry more before we can play a playmaker at 12. Something like that anyway…..

    • That’s a really interesting point Dave, cheers. Schmidt is clearly a deep thinker on the game, and it’s something I’m sure he’s considered. Balance is key. And yes, your forwards need to be getting the team onto the front foot if this type of player is to excel.

      Will be fascinating to see how Ireland develop under Schmidt. Do you think we simply don’t have the back-row to allow this style of play to develop? Or do you think the personnel is there and it’s just a matter of fitting the parts together?

      • Cheers lad. Ya I think we have the players now especially with the emergence of O’Donnell and Henderson. If Dom Ryan stays fit and Rhys Ruddock gets game time along with the already established lads I think the jigsaw just needs to be assembled. Joe knows his rugby but I will be keeping a close eye on who fills the forwards coach role!

  6. As promising as the inside centre position seems to be in Ireland with Madigan or Luke Marshall ready made to step into the spot, with hopefully JJ and Olding developing, surely outside centre position is more of a concern. BOD’s one more year is just going to lead to another year of delay for finding a genuine successor. Outside of the usual suspects of McFadden, Cave and Earls do you see anyone really pushing to inherit the spot post BOD? ,

    • Might be worth a look in another post! Think it’s brilliant that BOD is playing on. A legend and I could watch him play forever.

      Cave still hasn’t really had a chance on the international stage despite his consistency for Ulster, would like to see him get a few games next season for sure. It’ll be interesting to see how Leinster move to replace O’Driscoll. Hopefully O’Malley can stay injury free next season, he’s a really good player.

      Another potential solution is using Olding or Marshall at 13. With a creative 12 inside him Marshall could be really effective, since he’s such a powerful runner and picks good lines. Alternatively, Olding’s complete skillset could be used out wider. I wonder how Anscombe will use his centres next season, with Wallace back from injury and Cave the incumbent at 13. All bodes well for Irish rugby!

  7. darkside lightside

    Good piece – I have long thought that Luke Marshall could be an Irish great, the first ever too class Irish second 5 of the pro era, however he needs a big and, most importantly, injury-free next season. Injuries have prevented him bedding into the team for a prolonged period, in the way that Olding did last season. I was always impressed by what I saw of Olding at schools level, but I must say I wasn’t expecting his breakthrough to the senior squad to be so impressive, particularly at 12 – if he keeps it up, Marshall (and of course Paddy Wallace, who I think still has a few miles in him) will have their work cut out dislodging him next season.

    I don’t see Olding playing at 13 at all, Marshall is more likely, and in fact has played once or twice there for Ulster IIRC. In fact barring injury to Cave, nobody else will be. He is much under-rated player, and particularly defensively he is very important for Ulster (Matt Williams said he was the best defender at 13 that he had seen after BOD).

    • Completely agree with yourself and Matty on Cave at 13. He’s been excellent for Ulster for some time now. I’m hoping to see him get a couple of games for Ireland next season there.

      One thing your post highlights is the fact that Ireland have an increasing number of viable options in the two centre positions. Maybe a year and a half ago, when D’Arcy’s international form was at its poorest for some time, it wasn’t as immediately obvious how Ireland were going to eventually replace him. Lots of options and different styles not forgetting someone like McSharry.

  8. darkside lightside

    ‘too class’?? I meant ‘top class’, thanks autocorrect!

  9. Great article Murray, keep them coming!

    Two comments;
    1.) I reckon the playmaking 12 always works best with a direct 13, (e.g. Giteau-Mortlock, Mauger-Umaga). I think without that direct 13 the back line can be quite passive/lateral (e.g. most times PW started at 12 for Ireland) and that would be my main concern about Ireland employing a second five-eighths.
    2.) I definitely see Hanrahan as a 10. I thought he was fairly anonymous as a 12 for Ireland under 20s last year but he was an exceptional 10. I would see his main attributes as his attitude/composure (see SA last JWC) and an excellent tactical kicking game. Both of these attributes would be somewhat underemployed at 12. Also, his experience as 12 means that he can run and tackle at a higher level than a lot of 10s. Look at DC, a good 12, who underneath it all was actually the best 10 in the world. While I wouldn’t put JJH in the same boat ability-wise, I think it is a similar situation.

    Would be keen to hear your thoughts!

    • Thanks Ned!

      1) I do agree with you that a centre pairing needs balance in the way you’ve described above. I think we’ll actually see Australia doing something along those lines vs. the Lions. AAC at 13 being a direct option to balance a more creative 12. Would there be anything to say for playing Marshall at 13 outside a second-five-eighth. He has plenty of skills himself but can also be very direct. Worth a thought?
      2) Totally agree that Hanrahan will end up as a 10 for Munster. But right now, Keatley will see himself as Munster’s outhalf and probably the coaches will too. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with playing Hanrahan at 12 to continue his development and I think he is the kind of player that would fit into Penney’s preferred playing style well. DC is a perfect example of the benefits of playing him at 12.

  10. Ulster have yet another great prospect at centre in Chris Farrel who has both the phsyical bulk and pace to make an impact. He showed up well in pre-season games before injury put him out for the season. He was a standout performer for the U20’s in the Junior World Cup.

    • Yeah he has looked really promising. Ulster are really building up a nice stock of centres aren’t they? Some very different players amongst them as well. Fantastic to see so many options, but the concern is whether or not they’ll all get games. That’s another issue altogether and I’m not going to get into it here! Farrell definitely one to watch.

      • Farrell is one to watch indeed, but in the context of this conversation, ulster seem to view him as a 13 – he’s big, but he has wheels, and takes good lines, presumably they want to see him do so outside PW/LM(/and now Olding), in the Tuilagi mould.

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