Rugby hipsters often go on about the 'subtle details' of the sport. Ever-changing descriptions of different styles actions and positions can be very confusing. Why can't props play both sides if both positions are "prop". What does George Hook mean when he says that Ireland doesn't have a "natural 7"? And what the hell is a "second five-eighth?". Never fear, here at balls HQ, we will help explain the difference between what appear to be similar positions, so you can be that guy down the pub telling everyone more than they know. Sure isn't that every Irishman's dream?
This week, with Ireland wondering where the next Brian O'Driscoll will come from, the difference between what a player with 12 on their back and 13 on their back.
"Second Five-Eighth" is a fancy word for an inside/first centre. It's most used in the southern hemisphere, and refers to a playmaking 12, and it's popularity is rising in Europe, perhaps due to the increased number of imports coming into France and England. We don't bother with such elegant or fancy maths-based names, merely referring to the position as an inside centre, or to be old school, "first centre". The name for the player just outside him is a lot easier, in that it's merely an "outside centre" or a "second centre",or down south simply a "centre".
Onto the real talk. The most important part of a rugby team's defence is their midfield. That's the centre partnership to you and me. They are responsible for organising the defensive line (13) and are there to assist outhalves (12) when they have to deal with 120kg worth of forwards running at them. The centres will be the players you see attempting to shut down the oppositions attacks. What made Brian O'Driscoll so good in defence was his ability to read when to shoot out of the defensive line, and when to hold back and keep a steady line. Depending on the defensive scheme, this job usually falls to a 13. Time it wrong and you've just given the opposition a big gap to slide through, but time it right and you more than likely have another hit added to your youtube reel. An outside centre is usually the last player in the line, and tries to either shepherd the opposition out to touch, or keep them back inside so they can be tackled by the covering defender. This can be a very challenging job, and is often the reason why talented players may not make it in the position before being moved out to the wing where the defensive responsibility is much less.
This seems like a very important job, but the success of the outside centre is dependent on his trusting of his inside partner. An outside centre needs to trust his centre partner to be able to cover across and tackle an attacker, should they try to cut a line inside while the outside centre tried to cover the outside options. An outside centre can't stop attacks out wide unless they trust that the inside centre stopping attacks inside. The below video does an excellent job to highlight why an outside centre needs to trust his inside player to make the tackle. In the last clip, Davies doesn't trust that O'Driscoll is going to make the tackle on O'Connor, and bites inside, allowing O'Connor to give Adam Ashley Cooper the easiest of run ins because Davies can't then turn around and make what should have been an easy tackle if he trusted his inside defender.
In attack, a new wave of playing the game of rugby is slightly muddling the differences between inside and outside centre. The success of Kurtley Beale playing 12 for the Super Rugby champions, Toulon's increased threat with Matt Giteau at 12, and Leinster's inability to deny Ian Madigan a place in the starting lineup has lead to a greater use of a distributor at 12, with confusion rising as the popularity of the phrase "second five-eighth" increases on these shores. Ireland have plenty of options to play in this style with Stuart Olding, Luke Marshall and Ian Madigan, while other big rugby teams use players like Matt Toomua (Australia), Billy Twelvetrees (England). The thing to notice about this is that for the most part all of those players mentioned have spent their rugby upbringing playing outhalf, and are considered to have superior passing skills, kicking skills and give a team more options in terms of playmaking ability. The extra space and less game management responsibilty frees these players to inflict the most damage. Usually their partners in the centre are big strong players, who don't usually offer much in the way of subtlety. Twelvetrees would be partnered with Manu Tuilagi, Tooma with Tevita Kuridrani and Giteau with Mathieu Bastareaud.
The second popular method that teams use is to almost swap their roles. England can also use boshtastic 12 Brad Barritt and Wales use the giant lump Jamie Roberts. For this to work effectively, it needs a playmaking type of outside centre, of which there aren't a huge amount of. This outside centre is a lot more reliant on his distribution skills, and intelligent lines of running through a defence, as opposed to running straight like Jamie Roberts is known to do. This line-running is an extremely valuable skill, and is why a lot of players who can pick good lines from further out at fullback, don't seem to do similar when playing at outside centre. In essence,while this appears to be a straight swap of attacking responsibilities from option A, it places a lot more demands on a 13. The most successful player of the past 15 years to play like this is by far Brian O'Driscoll, and it's why he's so revered throughout the world.
Between the two centres, they need a kicking option (usually the inside centre), a strong hard running option, and a playmaker. Sometimes you get inside centres that are a mix between big and playmaking like Ma'a Nonu, Sonny Bill Williams who need a calmer defensive presence like Conrad Smith beside them. But for the most part, it's much easier to think of inside centres as outhalves with better defensive skills and less game-management, while outside centres are wingers with better defensive awareness and worse aerial ability.Special players can play both positions (Gordon D'Arcy) but for the most part, each 12 requires certain skills, and each 13 requires different skills.
For Ireland, the centre partnership is Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw. Between the two of them, they have enough footwork, passing ability and the strength to run hard if needs be. Both have improved immeasurably in defence in the last year, which compliments their attacking prowess. Henshaw has shown great ability to come out of the line and smash attackers, while Jared Payne has the ability to cut through the defensive line to score tries. Don't tell me that the try below doesn't look very similar to this beauty. In both examples, watch the movement of Paddy Wallace (playing 12 in each, convenient) and how the defense has to hold to allow for his movement, which creates the openings for a well run line to break through.
Now go forth and be that guy in the pub, telling anyone who makes the mistake of listening to you, all about the "second five-eighth".