Wallaby Watch: Outside Centre - Green and Gold Rugby
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Wallaby Watch: Outside Centre

Wallaby Watch: Outside Centre

Dan Herbert – a great Wallaby 13

Each week we here at G&GR select our Wallaby Team of the Week. Rather obviously, this is the best performed Australian players of the previous weekend’s Super 14 Rugby. What we’ve found is that there is yet to be a player to rise up to the challenge and stake a claim for the outside centre jersey with a consistent set of dominant performances. One problem for the selectors (both our amateur ones and the Wallabies’ professional ones) is that at least two of the leading candidates have spent limited game time at outside centre.

It is such a crucial position for the Wallabies, and one in which we have prided ourselves over the last few decades. From Andrew Slack’s composed play and leadership to the natural athletic prowess of Jason Little to the more direct and uncompromising play of Daniel Herbert to the powerful running and big game plays of Stirling Morltock. Despite the occasional Nigel Kassulke, Dominic Maquire and Matt Rogers appearance and it is an impressive legacy. So who will answer the call in 2010 onwards? Who will continue the chain of command for next year’s Rugby World Cup and beyond? Let’s take a look at some of the options and consider their merits.

The Incumbent: When Digby Ioane was thrown into the 13 jersey for the Reds last year, some questioned whether he had the all round skills to play the position. He proved his critics wrong on the field with an awesome Super 14 competition, and played three of the five tests on the end of year tour in the position (with Ryan Cross playing the other two). In 2010 new Reds coach started the season with Digby on the wing, outside Morgan Turinui, before moving him in one spot for games against the Force and Cheetahs. His form has been consistent throughout, but it will be up to Wallaby coach Robbie Deans as to whether he’s seen enough of him in that important outside centre channel to select him there again in 2010.

Leading Candidates: The other man that shared the 13 jersey with Ioane on last year’s tour of Asia and the UK was Ryan Cross, of the Force. Since switching across to rugby from league in 2007, it would be fair to suggest that Cross has been the most consistent of the code converts. It has helped that he has spent most of his time in the one position, outside centre, and his direct running and solid defence has been an important asset in the Western Force’s armoury.

The man who was the first choice option for the position for last year, injury permitting (and in fact since 2003) is that man Stirling Mortlock. As mentioned above, Australia has produced some mighty impressive outside centres of late and Mortlock is arguably the best of the lot. Now entering his supposed ‘twilight’ years, despite just signing a three year contract with the Melbourne Rebels, Mortlock can still play in important role in the Wallabies World Cup hopes next year. Injuries are his bugbear at the moment, and it will be the management of those, hopefully flowing onto improved form on the field that will impact his future Wallaby chances the most.

AAC – bringing the power game.

Whilst Cross and Mortlock have been spending plenty of time in the 13 jersey this year, another of the leading candidates has not. Although many experts would suggest it is both where he plays best and where his future lies. Adam Ashley-Cooper has one significant impediment to gaining more game time in the position. Stirling Mortlock. It is has taken until week 10, and a number of Brumby injuries, for Ashley-Cooper to finally find his way into the outside centre position.

Roughies: Whilst Digby had a few games at outside centre, the man who pushed him back to the wing must enter Wallaby consideration. Will Chambers. The former Melbourne Storm centre is a superb athlete with a lot to learn and has benefited immensely of late by playing in the free running Red’s backline. He must love having the likes of Genia and Cooper inside him and Davies and Diggers outside.

Get on the Horne

The other candidate come from the Waratahs. Rob Horne is an innately talented and silky smooth runner who looks dangerous every time he touches the ball. A natural athlete, Horne has already toured with the Wallabies however injury, has it has down too much in his short career, limited his opportunities.

Big Question: So the big question comes to what do we do with Digby and AAC? Is Ashley-Cooper our first choice fullback? If so, then Digby is probably the man for the job at 13. Alternatively, are we better served to have Digby on the wing, meaning Ashley-Cooper needs to step into the 13 jersey? Both players must be in the Wallaby starting team, and both have utility value. But because of the skills they possess they need to be picked in their best position rather than just filling in the gaps.

Stat Attack: By reviewing some stats from the first half of the Super 14 competition we can see some interesting trends. There is no use using Ashley-Cooper’s stats this season in this analysis as he has played pretty much the entire season at fullback. So, we’ve looked at two separate breakdowns. Firstly let’s look at a couple of old bulls v two young guns, Mortlock and Cross v Horne and Chambers.

NB: The figures in the table are an average per game (as at end Round 10).

Player Games at 13 Tackles Missed Touches Runs Offloads Gain line % Metres Gained Metres/ Run Cleanouts Counter Rucking
Mortlock 6 5.17 0.50 11.50 4.67 0.50 51.39% 35.83 7.67 7.83 0.83
Cross 5 7.40 0.40 9.60 6.00 1.00 77.14% 61.80 10.30 4.60 2.40
Chambers 3 10.00 0.67 8.67 5.67 1.33 88.89% 81.33 14.34 7.67 6.33
Horne 3 8.00 1.33 8.33 5.33 0.67 80.00% 50.78 9.53 6.00 1.33

Firstly, we really need to focus first on Mortlock and Cross as they’ve played the majority of the season at 13. By looking at the stats in isolation it looks like Cross has had the better season thus far. This fits with the common thought that Mortlock is looking off the pace so far in 2010. Of interest is that Stirling is touching the ball more than Crossy, but running with it less.  Now that is probably more indicative of Cross’s approach to the game more than anything else. He’s a head down, charge for the line type of player.

Or is it just a confidence thing? Perhaps we need to see Stirling on the charge a bit more, using his angles to charge the ball forward. By looking at the figure for the percentage of time each has gotten over the gain line, Morty’s doing it just over half the time he runs! Cross is up closer to 80%. This isn’t the Mortlock we know. This shows up too in the metres gained stat, with Cross getting about 60m a game, whilst Morty is almost half that.

Chambers of Horror!

Another stat I’ve looked at is with regards work at the breakdown. It’s an important role for the outside centre as the ball is often ‘crash balled’ inside them or the winger isolated outside, leaving them as the closest player to act.  Stirling is doing plenty of work here, more than Crossy at least, yet Ryan is doing more when the opposition is tackled. However this seems to be a very clear Force directive, with John Mitchell and co making it very clear that they expect their players to be doing a lot of counter-rucking. Or perhaps they just haven’t had the ball as much as their opponents have.

Now, by having a quick glance towards the charge of the youth brigade, have a look at Will Chambers! It has only been three games so far, one against the hapless Lions, but his figures are outstanding.  If he can continue along these lines against the likes of the Stormers, Hurricanes and Brumbies then he is a very real shot for a Wallaby spot. He’s tackling more than any of the others, they are effective, he’s running heaps and getting over the gain line most of the time. Plus he’s off loading the ball and gaining plenty of metres (again the most on the list) while he is being surprisingly busy at the ruck, particularly when in defence.

When you compare Chambers to Horne, there’s no comparison, at least statistically.  More will reveal itself as the season progresses, and Horne is a definite talent. Perhaps Horne is being restricted by his inside men and the game plan? Chambers is definitely enjoying the freedom to use the ball. Truth be told, Horne compares very favourably to Mortlock and Cross. Perhaps we are looking at a generational change here?

The other stat comparison worth looking at revolves around Digby Ioane. As of the end of Round 10 he had played five games on the wing and two games at outside centre (being injured one week, with the Reds having the bye another).  So let’s look at the stats to see if we can pick up how he’s performing in each position.

Player Starts Tackles Missed Touches Runs Offloads Gain line % Metres Gained Metres/
Cleanouts Counter Rucking
Digby @ wing 6 5.33 0.67 14.33 10.50 1.67 66.87% 83.50 7.95 9.83 2.83
Digby @ Out Centre 2 4.00 0.50 9.50 6.00 1.00 100.00% 66.00 11.00 5.50 1.50

Surprisingly, for mine, Digby seems to be performing better on the wing rather than outside centre. Even more surprising is that he is touching the ball more and running the ball more from wing.   The reason for this I’d suggest is two-fold. Firstly, Digby plays as a winger with a roving commission. He can stand at first receiver, hover around behind Will Genia, or even snag the odd pick and go at the ruck.  At outside centre, he generally needs to hold his position more.

Digby – dangerous from wherever

The second factor is the increased value of counter attacking under the new law interpretations. The first benefit to the running team is the kick chase rule, whereby no one can advance until put onside by the kicker (or a player who was behind the kicker). This is allowing runners more space to run the ball back. At the same time, the interpretation of the breakdown law is definitely supporting the ball carrier, which is allowing ball runners to chance their arms in attack more. Two factors that support Digby’s style of play.

One stat that is better for Digby at outside centre is the percentage of times he’s crossed the gain line. Whilst on the face of it, it seems he is much better when playing out-centre, the reality is that he is a lot closer to the gain line there making it easier to cross. As a winger he’s been spending a lot of his time running back kicks, well behind the gain line. This in fact makes his percentage of almost 70% as a winger pretty damn impressive and one of the highest of all the Australian wingers. Digby is also making more metres per run at Outside Centre rather than wing so perhaps the argument can be made that’s he’s being more effective in the less opportunities.

In summary, there can be a strong argument made that there is a lot more value for Australian Rugby to have Ioane playing on the wing where he can unleash his dynamic running more often. What that means for the 13 jersey is a question that may unfold in the second half of the Super 14 season.  Adam Ashley-Cooper may well be the man most likely, but I have a feeling one of the young stars just promoted to the Waratah and Reds’ starting side recently (Horne and Chambers) may very well end up there sometime very soon.

Noddy’s pick? Adam Ashley-Cooper to start the season there, but watch for Will Chambers to push his claim.

  • Bobas

    Great article Nodds.

    Horne with the highest miss percentage is a worry and something that he needs to lower if he wants Wallaby selection (we all know how good of a tackler Tom Carter is).

    For me AAC to start in 13, Chambers on the bench.

    • Seb V

      Who would u put at fullback if AAC is 13? (now that hynes is set to be going overseas next year)

      • Noddy

        Hynes leaving is just manager talk I reckon.

        JOC will be fullback come the next RWC I reckon anyway.

        • Bobas

          Hynes has shown he can do the job well enough for me.

          JOC on the bench.

  • Batmann

    Having watched all of the Tah’s games this year. Most of those tackles Horne has missed, he has then chased after the player and taken them down.

    Doesn’t excuse the miss in the first place, but he is not one to lie there and rue the mistake, he cleans them up.

  • Lachlan

    Good article, but why waste time analysing mortlock? he hasn’t played two consecutive games in a very long time now with out picking up some kind of injury.
    He isn’t getting any younger and his continual injuries are unsettling to any backline he plays in. A legend of the game no doubt, but it’s time for him to join the Rebels coaching staff and pass the torch onto the next generation.

  • Scotty

    Agree Noddy. If Chambers keeps his form together, I will be shocked not to see him in the Wallaby squad. He just gets through so much work, and is effective in most of what he does.

  • ula

    bit of a dilemma with 13. cross is not an option. i think horne will eventually get the gig, he has very imposing defense. mortlock should be out of contention. maybe have 13. AAC 14. DI 15. PH

  • Robson

    Interesting set of stats there and much food for thought. Actually I’ve been very, very impressed with Will Chambers and the figures just produced cement my view that he should be the WB o/s centre and straight away too. If the wheels fall off in the early games, try Horne and then AAC. Digby is one awesome player, but not really an outside centre in my view. I really want AAC to play fullback because I think that is the position from which he is most potent in attack. If Gits doesn’t get it together at i/s centre give the wheel to O’Connor – who in my view – is the best potential second five in the southern hemisphere and in a year or so you can remove the word “potential” from that, because he will be the best.

    Maybe a backline like this could emerge. It’s not what I think will happen but it’s got some merits.

    9 Genia

    10 Cooper

    12 O’Connor

    13 AAC or Chambers

    11 & 14 Ioane and whoever you like

    15 AAC or Hynes

  • embrangled

    That is an exciting backline, although it’s been pointed out often that Cooper’s playing so well partly due to having a straight runner running good lines with great defense outside of him in Faingaa. Will O’Connor ever be that kind of inside centre?

    He’s such an incredibly talented player and could play 10,12 or 15 but if Cooper remains at 10 sometime in the future (not near future) the WB backline could look like:

    9 Genia

    10 Cooper

    11 Mitchell

    12 Faingaa

    13 Chambers/AAC

    14 Ioane

    15 O’Connor

    Bench: Gits (covering 9,10,12)
    AAC/Horne (covering 11, 13, 14, 15)

    5-2 split with all backs positions covered and 5 forward subs to outmuscle the boks towards the end.

  • Seb V

    Nice post noddy! You have confirmed my feeling that digby is best served at wing. AAC to fullback, Chambers to 13. If he nneds developing put him on the bench and start Hynes/JOC fullback, AAC 13.

  • I have nothing against Chambers or AAC at 13, and the stats don’t seem to back up the feelings, but I think a fit Horne is the go.

    Problem really is the fit bit.

  • Fantastic post Noddy, love it when stats come together like that.

    Chambers is an eye-popper. Has come a long way from looking clueless at the start of the season. Keeps going like this and he could be one of the smoothest mungo converts we’ve had.

  • Ben

    Great article…..if firm continues I can see chambers at 13….another genius call by link as when he moved diggers I think diggers had just scored twice.

    Watching Horne I wonder if he coul play 12…just imagine a Horne chambers 12 13….could be devestating.

  • Biffo

    I’m with Ben re the longer term. Horne 12, Chambers 13. Both have too much talent to be left out.

  • wobbly

    AAC – no-brainer.

    Chambers and Horne to get Oz A time and at least one of them EOYT.

  • wobbly

    Faingaa and Lealifano are emerging 12’s, so why suggest moving Horne when he’s an out and out 13.

  • Joe Blow

    Chambers has been very impressive. Of course his stats are helped by the fact that Cooper is in sublime form and regularly puts him into gaps. He is also doing a lot of work off the ball and we know Cooper is not helping him there!
    This would be an exciting Wallaby backline.


    It might just be a little early for Chambers but he should have been well schooled by 2011.

  • Langthorne

    Great post – yes, the outside centre position is certainly not even close to settled.

    I’m not sure that 3 games in a position are going to give “statistically significant” results, but I would agree that Chambers and Horne look like they have the potential to make the No 13 Wallaby jumper their own.

    I would still go with a fit Mortlock, if such a thing still exists, ahead of all other options.

  • Westo

    I must admit I am a little suprised that Diggers’s offloads are more than all other proposed 13’s. Although an amazing runner his distribution of the pill does not exist, except in contact. I am not complaining cause I love the style the Reds are playing, just suprised. Carn the Reds

  • westy

    I’m going to chuck a curve ball in here Cameron Shepherd. A try scoring machine.
    Universally it’s well known that Genia and Cooper are liable to be halves. JO’C will be at 10 in the future and 2 dads is destined to be 13 or 15 in the current Brumbies/Wallaby setup.
    9. Genia 10. Cooper
    12. O’Connor 13. A-Cooper
    11. Shepherd 15. Hynes 14. Ioane

    20. Sheehan 21. Giteau 22. Cross

    Mitch Inman has filled the 13 shirt exceptional well in a constantly changing Force backline. Another is Brumby John McCabe who this year has impressed me with his strength on the ball.
    I don’t think they are ready for the Wallabies just yet but exposure to squad training touring would be invaluable and Australia ‘A’ against the Poms.
    Blood them both for World cup along with the likes of Horne, Chambers and the very impressive Luke Morahan (a future fullback imho) to become part a powerful and explosive Wallaby backline for many years to come.

  • mudskipper

    Will Chambers 13 and AAC 15

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