Gordon D’Arcy: Surviving at centre not easy – just ask Kriel

Rugby supporters may not know who is to blame for mistake – but your team-mates will

South Africa’s young centre Jesse Kriel looks stunned after Japan’s Karne Hesketh scores the winning try during the Pool B match at Brighton. Photograph: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

South Africa’s young centre Jesse Kriel looks stunned after Japan’s Karne Hesketh scores the winning try during the Pool B match at Brighton. Photograph: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

 

Centre as an art form begins with defence. Not tackling, defending. Japan’s Ayumu Goromaru running through the Springbok defence unharmed was a replica of Brian’s try against Cardiff in 2012 that I mentioned last week. Exact same move. If nothing else Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt are eternal students of the game.

Jesse Kriel, the young South Africa 13, made two of the worst reads a centre can make during that sequence and for the winning Japanese try.

Both times Kriel broke a golden rule of defending in midfield: stay relevant.

A centre must develop spacial awareness to survive in Test rugby. If you get too close to an attacker, you end up following him into the space and it’s almost impossible to get back out. It’s about hovering two or three yards outside the tackle area so if he doesn’t get the ball you push off to the next guy.

If you dive into that hole and don’t make a clean tackle you disappear from view and it looks like someone else has missed a tackle. Your team-mates know who is to blame. So does your coach.

So, probably, did Eddie Jones. Kriel is 21 and a genuine talent who has played a lot of rugby at fullback or wing. It showed.

Japan flooded the space Kriel should have been holding and he took the bait. Then he emptied their outhalf late to leave a gaping hole for their blindside winger to run into. That might look like a worthwhile exercise to the untrained eye but rugby players know what he did.

For Japan’s winning try he was handed off by Al Mafi as punishment for invading the space too early. That forced the covering Springbok defender to go towards Mafi and leave JP Pieterson with a two-on-one scenario.

High stakes

High pressure, high stakes, two bad decisions by a young outside centre and South Africa lose the game.

Some people are good tacklers. You can pick them out in a sea of eight-year-olds on a Saturday morning. They know when to drop, when to power in, how to instinctively generate that surge through their second foot. Most players tackle and plant their foot without taking another crucial step in. Those players almost always lose the contact.

I was a decent tackler but had to become an international standard defender. Usually it’s a prerequisite for a good defender to be a good tackler but the great one’s might only make three or four primary hits in a game. It’s about being in the right place at the right time.

Jared Payne instinctively gets this. Conrad Smith and Brian are the masters of outside centre play – it’s their longevity and brilliance in defence that made them great players as much as the magic they conjured up passing out of contact or breaching defences.

Smith’s body shape in the defensive line is fantastic. His ability to move when crouched really, really low, laterally, forward or backwards means he rarely misses a tackle.

Now, there are times when the space around an attacker must be filled at all cost. See Luke Fitzgerald’s attempted intercept last Saturday that ensured Canada’s try just before half-time was disallowed.

Jamie and Johnny stopped Aaron Carpenter inches shy of the line but scrumhalf Gordon McRorie spotted the overlap and flung it wide. Luke made a brilliant decision going for the ball and not the man as he forced Nathan Hirayama’s forward pass. If Luke had sat off, it would have been catch, pass, try.

His performance in general showed how much he has grown as a rugby player. He’s older now and more attuned to rugby so it’s not just about getting the ball and trusting his natural talent. He looked really sharp, his decision-making with ball-in-hand and, more importantly, his accurate execution was quality.

Second Captains

It was probably his best game in a green shirt and it was at inside centre. Does that change things for Italy and France? Probably not.

Dave Kearney did enough to keep 14 so it’s between Luke or Keith Earls for the left wing but Robbie must perform now against Romania or Italy.

It’s the ideal situation really.

I also think Payne has become the second most important player in Ireland’s backline, possibly even the team. A fullback by nature, he has become a reliable Test centre and that’s down to fundamental skills.

He does the right thing at the right time. Even the two kicks that didn’t work out, one off Johnny’s brilliant cross-field laser and chipping that ball into DTH van der Merwe’s hands for Canada’s try, were the right plays; it’s just his timing was off.

The outside centre channel gives you a split-second more than inside centre to decide to attack or pass. If you back yourself, the rewards are there if you execute well. At 12, it’s more a case of carrying in strong traffic without much time to react.

I know both roles well. I was coasting along as a winger until Gary Ella asked me to train at outside centre one morning in January 2004. It went well, so my first game wearing 13 was later that weekend against Sale at Edgeley Park in the European Cup.

Slow motion

Brian was injured. They had Jason Robinson attacking from their back field and I remember putting him down twice. They had beaten us the previous week at Lansdowne Road but we won 23-16 and I just loved it.

It felt like everything was happening in slow-motion. Off our first attacks I saw their winger Mark Cueto was sitting off a fraction so I demanded the ball and galloped into the space. I created Brendan Burke’s try and cut up the Sale midfield a few times. It was a particularly special night and Eddie O’Sullivan was watching.

I stayed there against Cardiff the next week and in Biarritz before Eddie picked me alongside Kevin Maggs for the Six Nations opener in Paris. Up against Yannick Jauzion and Damien Traille. A huge and brilliant centre pairing, my intent as soon as the team was announced was to force Jauzion into marking me and not the other way round.

Eddie was a believer by then. Having left me out of the World Cup squad six months previously, his words of advice were simple: if it’s on, go for it.

He was very protective of me back then, so no media. He probably still saw me as a potential liability but he backed me, aged 23. Better late than never.

It was my sixth cap, five years after the first against Romania at the 1999 World Cup. It was also my Six Nations debut. Traille and Jauzion combined for a nice try. So did myself and Tyrone Howe; a rare offload in a 17-year career but we were 18 points down. I used to look at Jauzion and think if I was his size I’d have so much fun playing rugby. He was all class, made it look so easy. I always enjoyed going up against him. Ma’a Nonu was like tackling a rhinoceros but Yannick was like trying to grab a deer. He was as graceful as he was powerful.

The toughest centres to defend? Mathieu Bastareaud and Nonu. There wasn’t a game I played against Bastareaud when he didn’t swat me aside. Nobody remembers the six clean hits I made. You just can’t be left alone on him. In Paris in 2013 I chopped him perfectly in the first minute. The second charge was not so great but we survived.

Holds the space

Bastareaud is actually a good defender. Many teams have targeted him but he holds the space so well that they end up running into him. And there is a lot of him.

I was always excited about testing myself against these players. I refused to let myself be outclassed by my peers, They were the best so I knew if I could deliver against them I could call myself a rugby player. I held my own about 90 percent of the time.

My career at 13 was shortlived. Two weeks after Paris, Brian was fit for Wales in Dublin. I presumed I would be gone but Eddie dropped Maggsy. And that’s how I became a 12 for the first time in my life.

Inside and outside centre are vastly different positions. Twelve is a slot with tighter space and less time on the ball, plus you invariably running into a seven. At 13, you have more space and can run at the outside shoulder.

Two different jobs that make up the one whole, but only if the partnership does their individual jobs correctly. Both players must be selfless, especially in defence.

A lot the time I had to fight to get into a good defensive position to help Brian. The easiest thing is to drop under and head for the corner but if you actually fight to get up field and stay attached to your 13, it makes his job so much easier. It makes for a solid shape too. If the attacker does step back inside, you can accelerate into contact.

I’ve mentioned all the monstrous modern centres bashing over the gainline but Matt Giteau outshines them all.

Smaller and lighter than me, he’s not only highly skilled but at 32 still possesses genuine, darting pace. A ballsy defender, great distributor and boasting a world-class kicking game, he is the definition of what the southern hemisphere rugby people term a second-five-eight.

Robbie Henshaw is getting there. The Irish gameplan is very clean.

Extracting information

Other teams go through the phases before seeking their game-breakers, their power men. We combine in twos and threes to create opportunities. For Connacht, Robbie is one of those power men, so his role for Ireland is almost the opposite. But he gets it. He was constantly extracting information from myself and Brian these past two years.

The Canadian defence was soft last Saturday. Hence the multitude of loop plays. I can’t see us doing that against Italy or France – it was a fit-for-purpose tactic to beat Canada. Van der Merwe shot up a few times but the rest of them stood off.

Johnny’s try came after running six or seven loop plays before Seán O’Brien got the ball. The defence sat off so Seánie went back inside to Johnny, who headed for the corner. The move was to play another loop but two good rugby players saw what was on.

The warm-ups weren’t about the opposition – it was about preparation for the World Cup. But in this first game I could see the intent and work that has been done. Dave Kearney’s try was straight off the training ground.

My only concern was on turnover ball when we didn’t really take full advantage. That was down to execution but it’s a work in progress.

What I liked most were the late tries. A real foot-on-the-throat attitude. It’s hard not to switch off, but Seán Cronin and Ian Madigan were never going to let that happen. The fact that Luke and Jared combined seamlessly together was important. Now we have that option. We also know Luke or Keith can play 13. Darren Cave will get his chance against Romania.

I do feel for Jesse Kriel. The ramifications of missing your read at outside centre are more punishing than anywhere else on the field. He now knows just how unforgiving life as an international centre can be.

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