Alan Watkins On Rugby

Two countries in search of four centres at sixes and sevens
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The Independent Online

Two months from the beginning of the Six Nations Championship and we have the spectacle, unprecedented in my experience, of two countries in search of four centres. The countries concerned are England and Wales, who meet at Twickenham in early February for the first match of the competition. If there was one aspect of their play in the so-called autumn internationals (though they seemed more like early-winter internationals) on which most observers were agreed, it was that they lacked penetration in midfield.

Indeed, it was more serious than this, for individually penetrative centres come along once in a generation, if that. It was more that the respective coaches, Andy Robinson of England and Mike Ruddock of Wales, did not seem to be at all clear in their own minds about the kind of centre pairing they wanted to have.

The England backs worked best a few seasons ago, with Will Greenwood at inside centre and Mike Tindall outside him. That was in the reign of Sir Clive Woodward, of blessed memory; or perhaps not. Then Tindall was injured, Greenwood lost his form and both were messed about. Greenwood was put on the outside and then dropped completely; while Tindall eventually returned on the inside with the similar Jamie Noon outside him.

James Simpson-Daniel, normally a wing at Gloucester, was then giving a brief fling at outside centre before he too was injured. My esteemed colleague Chris Hewett, looking towards the World Cup in 2007, suggested in these pages recently that the England pairing should be Simpson-Daniel with Josh Lewsey at inside centre.

Apparently Lewsey began his rugby career at outside-half. Even so, his experience at the highest level has been as a member of the back three, with nobody quite sure whether he was better suited to wing or full-back. As tends to happen with versatile players, they win a lot of caps but remain somehow unfulfilled.

It may well be that inside centre is Lewsey's best position. But if it is, would it not be a good idea for him to be given some practice there, both by his club, Wasps, and by his country? If Simpson-Daniel is to be his outside partner, he should surely be playing there regularly for Gloucester as well as for England.

Part of the trouble may be that the four home nations have never properly reconciled themselves to having a specialised inside centre. The same may be true of France as well. In New Zealand the second five-eighth does what his title implies he does: he acts as a playmaker, creates space, behaves as an additional outside-half. In Europe we tend to regard him more as a banger and little else.

Wales are slightly better off to the extent that their centre pairing of Gavin Henson with Tom Shanklin outside him is at least fixed. The trouble is that, because of injury, it has yet to be seen in action this season. A few days ago Henson failed a fitness test and was unable to play for the Ospreys in the Powergen Cup.

With Sale playing silly buggers over the release of the former Llanelli centre Mark Taylor (who normally plays on the outside), Wales' competent but uninspiring first-choice pair seems to consist of Matthew Watkins, of Llanelli - who had a good game against Australia - with the old warhorse Sonny Parker inside.

My own inclination would be to give Watkins (no relation) a run and to play Shanklin on the right wing if he is fit. He has never let Wales down, either at centre or on the wing, but he has a true wing's knack of popping up unexpectedly to score tries. Sir Clive clearly thought it was his best position in New Zealand in the summer; and not everything that Sir Clive thinks is automatically wrong. One of the lessons of rugby down the years is that brilliant pairings in the centre do not automatically win matches. Wales in the 1990s had a fine pair in Allan Bateman and Scott Gibbs (both returned from rugby league), but it did not do them much good at the time. The Jack Matthews-Bleddyn Williams combination was famous after the war, but in 1950, when Wales won the Grand Slam, Williams did not make a single appearance. In 1952, when Wales won another Grand Slam, Williams played once, and Matthews did not play at all.

In the 1970, however, Wales' most successful period, the pedestrian pairing consisted of Steve Fenwick and Ray Gravell, so perhaps there is hope for my native land after all.