The McLook rugby collection

A personal collection that tells the story of Springbok rugby

Best center combination ever

I wrote this piece after having read an article by Marc Hinton (Nonu and Smith the best ever) in which he argues that Nonu and Smith is right up there as one the best centre combinations –if not the best ever. He then goes on and compare them with other All Black centre combinations as if New Zealand is the only country that can produce top class centers. 

He compares them with the likes of Frank Bunce/Walter Little; Joe Stanley/Warrick Taylor; Bruce Robertson/Bill Osborne; Aaron Mauger/Tana Umaga and Bill Davis/Ian McRae. 

There is no mention of South African, Australian, French or UK (England, Wales, Irish, Scottish, and British Lions) centre-pairings. 

His intension seems to be to only compare them with New Zealand combo’s of yester year as his heading indicate. He argues his case on the fact that Nonu and Smith complement each other in their opposite natures. The fact that they are so different is what makes them such an excellent combination, according to Hinton. 

Personally, I don’t really rate either of them individually or as a pair. I think both has certain strengths but has been -to be honest- quite ineffective in terms of creating anything special in a team that has played the best rugby the world have seen for the last 10 years. The amount of ball and the speed with which they received the ball would make any second team high school centre-pair look like world breakers. If you can’t score tries and/or create tries with the amount of quality ball these two received, during this year’s tri-nations, then you belong in a wheel chair. 

What exactly did Nonu and Smith do for the Hurricanes over the last four seasons to be classed the best ever? 

Surely, there have been better centre combinations in NZ and world rugby for that matter. I’ll take Frank Bunce and Walter Little any day above Nonu and Smith. I can still remember the three tries Frank Bunce scored against us in 1996 at Ellispark. His footwork was just phenomenal and Little was the silent assassin who ran straight lines and created the opportunities for Bunce to shine. 

However, I don’t rate them -with even a remote change- being the best ever, either. The other All Black pairings he mentions also got smoked by SA combo's. Bill Davies and Ian McRae come of second best against Gainsford and Roux in 1965 and Roux and Gainsford as a combination had lots of limitations; Roux being to individualistic and Gainsford having only an inside break of his left foot which made him extremely predictable for defenders. In spite of that he scored on regular intervals at crucial times to win matches. Roux was the opportunist, the unpredictable genius who always asked questions from the opposition but like geniuses tend to do he was so unpredictable that not even his team mate knew what he was going to do next. 

Mannetjies Roux was involved in another partnership in 1970 with Joggie Jansen and they were so destructive that they totally annihilated the NZ playmakers on that tour. See below how Roux created tries of Jansen's tackles. 

Jansen’s tackling are still today regarded as probably the main reason why we won that series. Roux was instrumental in creating tries out of nothing and quite a few times of Jansen’s tackling. I would agree that they were in the sense of classical centre play probably not the best of the best but as a combination they certainly had more impact on a series than Nonu and Smith.  

 

 

Bruce Robertson and Bill Osborne surely were no better that Oosthuizen and Whipp during the 1976 All Black tour. Oosthuizen and Whipp was one of the better pairings in SA rugby history; Whipp the playmaker and Oosthuizen with the speed and outside break, the finisher. The isolation years impacted on their careers and unfortunately they never matured into their full potential. 

Bill Osborne against Westren Province during the 1976 All Black tour 

Peter Whipp on the break in the first test of the 1976 tour. All Black number 12 is Bruce Roberston. See Bruce Roberston in action below.

Johan Oosthuizen (See Oosthuizen and Whipp in video below) 

I haven’t seen Joe Stanley and Warrick Taylor but in more or less the same time we had Tjol Lategan and Ryk van Schoor and they were outstanding during the famous 1952 tour to the UK when the Springboks cleaned out all the UK sides and France. 

Van Schoor and Lategan

Van Schoor renowned for his tackling and Tjol Lategan remembered mostly for the try he scored in a concussed state against Scotland. I don’t think there was enough speed in this combination to be rated as the best ever but they combined well and were effective and instrumental with regard to the success of that particular team. 

The prince of centers was without a doubt Danie Gerber; at his best almost unstoppable. He was involved in two combinations with the two du Plessis brothers Willie and Michael. He played with Willie in 1981 and as a pair they didn’t really ignite the spark which was apparent when Gerber and Michael played together. Gerber’s speed and Michael’s unpredictable brilliance as well as his deft passing skills made them an outstanding combination. See Gerber and Michael in action in the clip below,

 

I am a big Tana Umaga fan. He was great; what I liked most about him was his work ethic on the field; total commitment. There is a lot of talk about Smith being such a clever player but Tana, in my opinion, read the game a lot better allowing him to change a game by doing something remarkable at the right time. He and Mauger as a combo, however,  never really excited me as they never left you with the feeling that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. Mauger was a good player and he scored some great tries against SA but he and Tana together didn't have that special spark that some of the other pairs had. I would rather watch a old Tana game than one featuring Smith or Nonu. 

At the moment South Africa have Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie both classy centers and playing well as a combination. Their partnership has been broken up so many times that I get extremely irritated just thinking about it. This is a combination that should be right up there as one of the best ever but who seems to be taking one step forward and then two steps backwards; the result of constant subbing and changes made to the starting midfield combination by a coach who don’t seems to know what he have in them; not appreciating -it seems- just how influential this combination can be towards winning tight matches and creating opportunities in a team that struggles to get flow in the backline. The lack of tries by the Springbok backline and the constant breaking up of this partnership count against them as being rated one of the best pairings in world rugby.

Jean de Villiers 

Peter Bills wrote an article (O'Driscoll and D'Arcy world's best, says Lagisquet) indicating that O’Driscoll and D’Arcy are the best pairing currently in world rugby. I would rate them at least as good as Smith and Nonu.

There are however in my books three other combinations that I fancy and rate as being better than anything else I’ve seen on planet earth. 

Phillipe Sela and Thierry Lacroix from France was something exceptional. I didn’t see much of them but on the few occations I did see them play I was impressed with the way they created opportunities against the toughest midfield defence. They never looked rushed and outfoxed the opposition as a combination and not with individual brilliance. 

Phillipe Sela 

Tim Horan and Jason Little was also right up there as a combination; instrumental in Australia’s series win against the Springboks in 1993. Little scored twice -in one test- by combining with Horan; they used deft running lines and clever scissors in-passing moves to create openings in the defensive line. They totally outfoxed the South African midfield defense. It was some of the best centre play I’ve seen, yet. 

The ultimate centre pairing and who took centre play, for me, to the absolute next level -during last year (2009) British and Irish lion tour to South Africa- was Jamie Roberts and Brain O’Driscol. The way they created openings with clever running lines and with supportive back-up running was just extra ordinary. What made them so good was the fact that they did not only play of each other but also utilized the fullback and wingers to create deception. 

They would attack one channel as a pair in ways that I have not seen before or since. They in my book are the best centre pairing with emphasis on the word pairing, I’ve seen. Individually they are probably not the best centers the world have seen -O’Driscol is world class but Roberts has not really stood out on his own- but as a pair they were wonderful to watch. 

Dawes and Gibson are widely considered -by rugby enthusiasts as the best ever center pairing that have played the game. They were both involved in what is called the greatest game ever; played in 1973 between NZ and the barbarians. Checkout this try by Gareth Edwards. John Dawes feature in this game (the one with the massive side wickers). I get tears in my eyes every time I see this video. What a fantastic try.

Welsh rugby's golden era in the 1970s bears the stamp of John Dawes. As both player and coach Dawes, a quick-thinking centre with even quicker feet, brought unprecedented success to Welsh rugby and marshalled arguably the finest backline in rugby history on the 1971 British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand. 

John Dawes 

Dawes played his final Test in the drawn fourth Test in Auckland and is still the only skipper to win a Lions series in New Zealand. Dawes would get one over on New Zealand again however, captaining the Barbarians to their famous 23-11 victory over the All Blacks at Cardiff Arms Park in 1973. 

Mike Gibson is arguably the finest Irish player of all time. Accomplished in the 10 or 12 jerseys, Gibson's ability to mesh a backline together was years ahead of its time. He made his Irish debut in 1964, and amassed 69 international caps, a mark that held until lock Malcolm O'Kelly surpassed it 26 years after Gibson's retirement. 

Mike Gibson 

He was light years ahead of the game and definitely on another planet to most of his Irish contemporaries. Although he represented Ireland in 69 Tests, his full genius could only really find expression when playing for the Lions – he appeared in 12 Tests – and, of course, the Barbarians, when he was surrounded by players of a similar ilk. The New Zealanders considered Gibson to be the catalyst, the fount of everything good, when the Lions ran riot down there in 1971, and who can forget his master class at centre in the 1973 classic against New Zealand? 

See Gibson in action in this video clip

His achievements are all the more remarkable due to the amount of time that he was able to perform at the highest level. His international career spanned 16 years, and took in competition at every level of the sport. 

His midfield partnerships on Lions tours would not look out of place in an all time XV, and it was often his ability to gel the different styles of play into a coherent backs division that brought them such great success.

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