We know the position by many guises. Most commonly referred to as an inside centre, kiwis denote the position as a second five eighth. In Italy the role can be wonderfully referred to as a “Primo e Centro.” Either way, it is one of the pivotal stations on a rugby field.
This is becoming even more apparent in this year’s Autumn Internationals.
Over the professional era, the purpose of the number 12 has varied according to how each nation wishes to play its game.
There are two very basic ideologies that the second receiver in the back line can fulfil.
First is of a supporting playmaker. In New Zealand, this is why the position is known as a second five eighth, operating under the principle the both the number 10 and number 12 are dual first receivers that can operate either side of a scrum or ruck.
Often this style of player will also be a capable tactical kicker.
The second is of a power style player. A true inside centre who plays his role very much like a traditional centre, often straightening the attack on offense, or acting as the most powerful blockade off the fringes. That is, someone who can tackle a forward coming off the ruck as proficiently as tackling or stopping a backline play.
There is then the third option, someone who is a heady blend of the two above qualities. Great number 12's that spring to mind are Ireland’s Mike Gibson and Australia’s Tim Horan—players that are often the beacon for a team in attack or defence.
Tana Umaga is a classic example for New Zealand. In many respects the former All Black captain pioneered the role in aspects of game changing defence, and his ability to act as a roving loose forward.
Teams in the Northern Hemisphere are not producing as many quality number 12’s as they would like. Or more importantly, they are not using them effectively or in a manner which complements the entire team’s game.
Jamie Roberts has the potential to be a brilliant midfielder, but Wales and the Cardiff Blues centre are struggling to define his role.
Wales are not the Lions, and one wonders whether Roberts has adjusted to not having the combined forces of the home unions giving him go forward ball, and not having the calm advice of a certain 100 test cap North Dubliner whispering off his shoulder.
Against Australia and Samoa, Wales and Roberts did create opportunities, but were not clinical enough to finish them off. One cannot be too critical, as there is no Mike Phillips to create uncertainty in the fringe defence of opposition teams, nor a Lee Byrne scything into the defensive line.
But Roberts at test level, a player used at 12, 13, 14, and 15 in the backline, still has to learn to use his strong defence and powerful running to create. Certainly being partnered with Tom Shanklin hasn’t helped. Wales appear to have a mini identity crisis with their midfield. Gavin Henson isn’t there anymore and one feels that perhaps a Dan Biggar or James Hook could be better suited to 12, with Roberts feeding off created space.
England are missing this without Riki Flutey, who suddenly appears be the spark that the English backline requires.
Ireland do not need to rely so much on this, as they have the magical Brian O’Driscoll. There is far less expectation on the Paddy Wallaces or Gordon D’Arcys with quite possibly the most ingenious outside centre ever to play the game placed outside them.
In the South, the rise of Ma’a Nonu has seen the All Blacks able to rate their first choice midfield as one of the best in the world. However, the dreadlocked centres role is a lot easier with Daniel Carter inside of him.
But it is his combination with Conrad Smith, a complimentary but more diverse player than Nonu that sees the All Black backline perform more efficiently.
While the Wallabies may not exactly be clones of the Crusaders, Robbie Deans has certainly pushed the principles of a “second five eighth” onto the Australian set up.
Berrick Barnes has emerged to be the anchor, in which the Wallaby backline operates around and Quade Cooper may be more flamboyant than and not as structured as the injured Australian centre, but essentially their roles are the same.
The Wallabies' play flows more efficiently with their 10 and 12 interchanging.
Most test nations have depth in their three quarter line or backup halves, but when a team loses its presence at number 12, it inevitably suffers. South Africa has looked less potent without the assuredness of Jean De Villiers in their backline.
Many feel that with a world class test fly half a team cannot dominate, or build towards winning a World Cup.
But as recent matches have shown, lack of creativity and nous at 12, can unhinge even the best side.