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.
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?