With the 2014 Six nations taking a weekend off, but with the teams having had two match weekends to show their credentials for this year’s crown, I felt a need to take a specific look at an integral part of each sides make-up. The centres are the heart of the backline at any level of rugby, and in a year when physicality appears to be key to victories in the between the Northern Hemisphere countries, trust in your 12-13 partnership is even more important than usual. A mixture of dependability and flair are often the keys to a good pairing and I feel it is no coincidence that in successful teams, settled centre partnerships are often found. With some strong twosomes in action it is tough to give a conclusive answer, but I hope you will agree with my choice and reasoning below!
No.12: Billy Twelvetrees + No. 13 Luther Burrell
England have blooded an inexperienced backline in this year’s tournament and there is no exception in the middle of the park. The solid, if unspectacular Brad Barritt has been overlooked to date in favour of Twelvetrees and the Gloucester man has put in two reasonable performances at inside centre. At 13, Burrell has been one of the finds of the campaign. The Six Nations debutant has crossed the whitewash once in each of his first two England performances and has showed real potential with a potent combination of pace, power and skill. A solid pairing for England, potentially flattered by the hapless Scotland performance at Murrayfield. They will need much more time playing together to prove themselves at this level. Not there yet.
No.12 Duncan Taylor/Matthew Scott + No.13 Alex Dunbar
Scotland have experienced a dismal opening to the tournament and their midfield combination gave neither the English nor Irish much to fear. The three names mentioned are once again inexperienced at international level and it is hard to judge their efforts too critically with the lack of quality ball they have received, particularly against the English. Dunbar defended stoutly at the weekend, but ended up taking one for the team with a yellow card after multiple lapses in discipline from his colleagues. Not contenders.
No.12 Alberto Sgarbi/Gonzalo Garcia + No.13 Michele Campagnaro
The Italians are without Gonzalo Canale through injury at the minute and the 80+ capped La Rochelle man is missed. Sgarbi and Garcia have each had a go at filling the Number 12 Jersey and both have defended solidly but offered very little in attack. Campagnaro’s opening performance is the highlight of the first two matches for Italy; a detail that was brought to our attention on multiple occasions by the gushing BBC commentator Jonathan Davies. Campagnaro’s two tries were well taken, he defended excellently on a number of occasions and showed a promising turn of pace. A much quieter game followed against the French, but it is clear that, at the age of 20, he has a lot to offer his country in the future. Marginally stronger than Scotland.
No.12 Gordon D’Arcy/Luke Marshall No.13 Brian O’Driscoll.
The young and committed Luke Marshall was given a start in the opener against Scotland, but after appearing to do little wrong, was dropped from the match day squad and sent back to Ulster for some further game time. In the convincing victory over Wales, the familiar Darcy/O’Driscoll combo was revived. Darcy had a reasonable game, although was bafflingly used ahead of pack members, as a first receiver; taking the ball into contact on several occasions to little avail. The timeless BOD however, appears to have been reborn under Schmidt and has put together two very strong outings so far. The other nations must be sick of the sight of him, and his durability was once again demonstrated when he played on after a monstrous hit from Scott Williams (a collision which actually ended the Welshman’s outing). A solid and very effective partnership against Wales, but a few too many years between them to be considered for first position.
No.12 Jamie Roberts + No.13 Scott Williams/Jonathan Davies
Roberts at inside centre is a proven international player of the highest quality, with two Lion’s tours under his belt. A massive physical specimen in the middle of the pitch for the Welsh and respected the world over. Injury to fellow Lion, Davies has prevented the pair from linking up so far in this championship, however he is expected to return in the near future. Scott Williams performed admirably and picked up a try in the home win against Italy, before showing he is not one to shy away from contact in his big collision with O’Driscoll in Dublin. Unfortunately for the Welsh, the shoulder injury he sustained in the incident cut short his game and has ended his tournament. Williams has proven a capable deputy, but Wales can only get stronger with the return of Davies. Three strong players, but Wales’ lack of early form makes it hard to hand their centre partnership top spot.
No.12 Wesley Fofana + No.13 Mathieu Bastareaud/Gael Fickou
Mathieu Bastareaud is a player who divides opinions. While some pundits claim he is not good enough for international rugby, others think he adds something positive and different to the French setup. As an important part of Toulon’s Heineken Cup winning side last year, it’s likely that he does something right every now and then! Bastareaud played for Stade Francais against Ulster at Ravenhill a few years back and it was hard to believe that the player who had just walked past me down the tunnel was 18 years of age. A huge physical specimen who is aggressive in the tackle area; in my opinion he is a centre you would much rather have in your line-up than in the oppositions. In truth, he has had two fairly average games so far this year, but the same cannot be said for his inside man; Wesley Fofana. A prime athlete with excellent feet, deceptive strength and remarkable consistency, Fofana was tipped to star in this year’s tournament and has not disappointed. A try and a man of the match performance against Italy along with a good showing against the English confirmed the Clermont star as a premier in his position. This duo have complementary styles of play, with Bastareaud’s size meaning he can commit defenders when running tight lines, allowing Fofana space on the outside of defences. The presence of Gael Fickou, (the rising star of French rugby) on the bench for Les Bleus, gives coach Phillipe Saint-Andre an excellent back up choice and the electrifying pace showed by the Toulouse youngster in scoring the dramatic last minute try against England announced him to the International rugby scene.
Although there are several strong partnerships and world-class individuals shared between the six countries, I believe France have the edge. A solid defensive partnership which possesses power and flair in attack, along with the option of one of the most exciting prospects in the game from the bench, France have a formidable midfield set up. Results are always the key indicator to how units within the team are gelling together and the two impressive victories compiled by Les Bleus so far, corroborate the notion that they have the edge in the all-important midfield battle.