'It's hard to look away from Gordon for a better centre partner' - Brian O'Driscoll

The ex-Ireland centre discusses what makes a good centre combination.

brian-odriscoll Brian O’Driscoll has teamed up With GUINNESS To Bring The GUINNESS GIVEAWAY to fans. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

BRIAN O’DRISCOLL KNOWS a thing or two about how centre partnerships work.

He was one half of what many people view as Ireland and Leinster’s best-ever centre pairing with Gordon D’Arcy.

O’Driscoll also teamed up superbly with Wales’ Jamie Roberts on the 2009 Lions tour, the pair of them working strongly in tandem until injury meant they both missed the third Test against the Springboks.

Of course, O’Driscoll’s greatness made any pairing he was part of a strong one, but the 133-times capped former Ireland captain is firmly of the belief that the key is how centres complement each other.

Ireland’s midfield battle is a fascinating one at present with Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, and Garry Ringrose vying for the two spots, while Ulster’s James Hume has emerged to compete with that established trio. O’Driscoll has been “really impressed” with Hume.

There’s lots for Ireland boss Andy Farrell to consider when picking his centres but O’Driscoll underlines the importance of a strong understanding in midfield.

“A cohesion, a telepathy, an understanding of body shape without the need for communication – individually understanding the picture that your inside centre or outside centre has,” says O’Driscoll when asked what makes a good centre partnership.

“You’re doing your job but also understanding their role, which allows you to make better decisions on what you have to do.

“It’s about understanding the personnel that are coming attacking against ye. Sometimes you have to respect individuals with the need for double tackles but other times you’re very comfortable with allowing it to be a one-on-one tackle.

“It’s an appreciation of what the other person has to do for you to then do your role, that’s probably the really important thing between really good centre partnerships and the rest – an element of selflessness before you get your own role done.”

jamie-roberts-supported-by-brian-odriscoll-gets-tackled-by-jacques-botes-and-monty-dumond Jamie Roberts and O'Driscoll on the 2009 Lions tour. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

While O’Driscoll and Roberts were excellent together in 2009, nothing could match the cohesion he had created with D’Arcy for Leinster and Ireland.

That helped in defence particularly.

“The fortuitous thing with me and Jamie was that South Africa came route one, so defensively you weren’t challenged to make that many reads,” explains O’Driscoll.

“That was the beauty of playing with Gordon – when teams threw different attacks at us, be it through force or their passing game or evasion, you knew how to adjust because of the understanding with one another.

“With Jamie, we were lucky we played against South Africa and didn’t have to make too many pushes off, albeit he was good at that at a young age.

“But the more time you spend with someone, the better. There’s no doubt about that, you just realise where their strengths lie, they understand where your strengths and weaknesses lie. That allows you to complement one another and that’s what it’s about. If you defend on your own, you’re in major trouble. If you work well together, you can make bad reads and make up for each other, or be that safety net.

“But for the most part, it’s about working as a unit and that’s not just always defending right beside each other. It’s also understanding the need to split [into different areas of the defensive line] where the first-phase attack has happened and you’ve got to get a split of your 10-12-13. Whoever gets up off the ground has to get to the far edge and make sure you’re getting some speed on the corner.

“Ireland came unstuck on that one against France, the three-quarter line never got a defensive split. Even though Jamison Gibson-Park plays on the edge now, Joey [Carbery], Bundee, and Garry all played defensively together and got caught around the ruck a few times and that’s where we got caught out wide. It’s all those small things you need to adjust where teams will take advantage of.”

Such was the quality of the D’Arcy/O’Driscoll combination, it’s difficult to think of instances where they slipped up defensively.

brian-odriscoll-and-gordon-darcy O'Driscoll and D'Arcy playing for Ireland in 2013. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

There is one moment that comes to mind. Aurélien Rougerie burst through the Irish midfield for France in their 2011 win over Ireland in Dublin. Though it was D’Arcy’s missed tackle, O’Driscoll puts his hand up too.

“It’s hard to look away from Gordon for a better centre partner,” he says. “There was a real security any time he was there, I knew what I was going to get and I was very dependent on his tackling game.

“There’s only one tackle I can think of him falling off, that one on Rougerie and that says it all. It stands out because it was an anomaly.

“That was partly my responsibility because I should have respected Rougerie a bit more and given Gordon a bit more security and not played off, not been a bit more selfish about my role. I should have played a bit tighter and waited for him to get his job done and then I could have worked onto my role. I take a bit of responsibility for that as well.”

In attack, the level of cohesion between centres is very important too, explains O’Driscoll.

Reading cues from one’s centre partner informs decision-making.

“It’s understanding what the person is good at and filling each other with a confidence around playing to their strengths. I used to talk to D’Arce the whole time about ‘not getting tackled.’

“When he was carrying the ball into a collision, I used to tell him not to accept the tackle: ‘Your low centre of gravity makes it very hard, make sure they have to complete the hit because if they don’t, you’ve got a half break or your arms are free’ and that’s where I ran lines off him.

“I used to watch his body shape to understand what the level of hit was going to be like, whether he looked as though he’d gotten himself into a good position where I’d run a short line on that where there might be an offload coming. Other times, you’d realise very quickly that running into traffic there was going to be nothing for you and if you weren’t a recycler, you needed to be out for the next phase and you were wasting your time running a short line.

“It’s a case of understanding the picture and the more times you see the picture, the better you get at it.”

In O’Driscoll’s earlier international years, he also enjoyed playing with Kevin Maggs and Rob Henderson.

brian-odriscoll Henderson and O'Driscoll worked well together. INPHO INPHO

He and Maggs worked well together in Ireland’s midfield, while O’Driscoll and Henderson were excellent together in the early 2000s, including on the 2001 Lions tour in Australia, where they were the Test centre pairing.

“They were different and the same,” says O’Driscoll. “Maggsy was probably a bit more up-and-down, gave advantage line, and played to that game plan.

“Hendo was a big unit but was probably a bit more elusive, had a bit of footwork and was more likely to get his hands free.

“We struck up a good partnership in ’01 where maybe Will Greenwood might have been lined up for the inside centre role but Rob took full advantage of his injury. We were a good partnership but we didn’t play a huge amount internationally together.”

O’Driscoll will watch on with interest as Farrell goes about picking his favoured midfield for Ireland over the coming months leading towards the 2023 World Cup.

Oftentimes, one of the leading three has been injured but they’re all fit now and Hume has also burst into the senior squad in place of Chris Farrell.

O’Driscoll leans towards a pairing of Henshaw and Ringrose as his preference but it’s only on very fine margins.

“The centre pairing is really interesting at the moment,” says O’Driscoll. “No one has let the side down at any time in the last 18 months or two years.

“There are probably a few smaller moments that the coaches have noticed where people are maybe taking the safer option when bravery would have been really rewarded.”

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The42 Rugby Weekly / SoundCloud

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