The news that Israel Dagg is being seriously considered as a centre not only points to an on-going mid-field issue for the Crusaders but also signalled concerns at national level should Conrad Smith become unavailable. Centre has long been a weakness in New Zealand rugby, hidden by the luck of having long-term, rugged, skilled centres in the All Blacks. Yet from the 1970s onwards, if we take out Bruce Robertson, Joe Stanley, Frank Bunce, Tama Umaga and Conrad Smith then there is little to draw comfort from. At Super Rugby and ITM levels a centre above the merely adequate is hard to name. Tamati Ellison was perhaps the one possibility but he is now out for most of the season. Ben Smith is solid and fearless but in an earlier era would only ever have been a dirt-tracker, mid-week game All Black- if that. Richard Kahui was never not injured enough to really show us what he could do and perhaps was always best suited to be a winger as his play at the World Cup demonstrated. The same issues will confront Ireland after O'Driscoll and now challenge Australia after Mortlock. This raises the question of whether centre is perhaps the most difficult and crucial position on the field?
It is easy to be an adequate centre, yet an adequate centre will more often than not only result in an adequate team. For the centre not only runs the outside backs, they direct the play and defence of the inside ones as well. We need to remember how both Nonu and SBW lacked the skills to play top-level rugby at centre. That they can shine at second five is partly because of the opportunities that position allows. Also, the second-five game calls for a much smaller set of skills than the players inside and outside them. Yet without an excellent centre outside them then the second five falters. Consider how SBW improved at the All Black and the Chiefs when he didn't have Freuan outside. Conversely, the adequate will be able to appear more talented by the presence of a top-flight centre. Yet an adequate second-five with an adequate centre is a recipe for mediocrity.
Perhaps we have also traditionally put too much emphasis on the first-five? This is understandable because of the players we have had in that position, but also because we are enamoured with the mythology and romanticism of the first five being the 'little general'. Yet, imagine if, instead of coming in a position, the young Dan Carter had gone out one to play centre? Carter against Mortlock? Carter against O'Driscoll? Perhaps we could also have kept Nick Evans in the country? Consider also the World Cup final. We covered more than adequately the gaps at first five, in the end winning with a 4th-ranked player in that position. Yet if Conrad Smith was unavailable it is highly unlikely that we could have won.
The player for the future at centre is Charlie Piutau. He may be currently a winger/fullback but he has all the skills, intelligence, and presence to be a top-flight centre.The Blues need to play him there this season not only so they have a title chance, but also in the interests of future All Black player development.