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Lions Changing Roles: Centre

Lions Changing Roles: Centre

Perhaps no position better indicates the strategy of a team than the selection of their centre partnership.

According to the saying, centres are either piano shifters or piano players. The Lions have had plenty of contenders who could do both.

Perhaps no position better indicates the strategy of a team than the selection of their centre partnership.

From the playmakers to the bulldozers with plenty of variation in between, how a side lines up in midfield usually gives a good idea of their intentions.

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For The British & Irish Lions, the centre position is littered with great players, great captains and even brilliant coaches.

Ahead of the 2017 Tour to New Zealand, players from across the home nations will be looking to follow in the footsteps of greats like Mike Gibson, Sir Ian McGeechan, Jeremy Guscott and Brian O’Driscoll.
 
Beginnings
 
The centre position has certainly evolved over the years – and when the Lions first travelled all the way back in 1888 they played with just three three-quarters.

The second centre came into existence from a Lions perspective in 1896 on the Tour to South Africa.

JP ‘Jack’ Jones was one of the first great Lions centres, the Welshman toured in both 1908 and 1910, and was nicknamed the Prince of Centres – a moniker which would be given to several other Lions centres through the years.

Jones has started more Lions matches at centre than any other midfielder, with 41 in all, while Mike Gibson is second on 35 over five Tours – Gibson played many more at fly-half.

Gibson also leads the way in terms of Test starts with eight, level with Guscott and O’Driscoll.

And in terms of how the position has changed, Scott Hastings – who toured in both 1989 and 1993 – believes the biggest changes came in the 1980s just as he was coming through.

He explains: “The game went through a huge change at that time with the crash ball centre becoming a big part of the game.

“I felt that some of the creativity was coached out of me because that was how the game was changing.

“When I first came through you also had left and right centres, which have virtually disappeared now.

“I was stronger passing off my left hand so I preferred playing left and right [rather than inside and outside] and was very much a right centre when we played that way.”

We’ve picked out a few of the greats below, but we also have to mention a few others – not least John Dawes – captain of the great 1971 Lions, as well as Welsh centre pairing Bleddyn Williams and Jack Matthews.

In more recent times Scott Hastings twice toured in the latter days of the amateur era, Will Greenwood went on three Tours in the 1990s and 2000s, and Jamie Roberts will be looking to match him with a third Tour in 2017.
 
Jeff Butterfield (1955, 1959)
 
According to the saying, centres are either piano shifters or piano players, but as the South Africans discovered in 1955, Englishman Jeff Butterfield was both.

Both a powerful carrier, and a mazy runner, he had the sort of game that could easily have translated into the modern game.

Scoring tries in three of the four Tests against the Springboks, he was also a natural creator, with his wingers also prolific on that great Tour thanks to his efforts.

Mike Gibson (1966, 1968, 1971, 1974, 1977)

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Being a Lion once is the pinnacle of most careers, but to do it five times is simply unfathomable nowadays.

That’s exactly what Mike Gibson did, with the Irish legend equally at home at fly-half or in the centres.

In the 1970s he was used more at centre with Barry John and then Phil Bennett taking the No.10 jersey, and he did it to great effect.

Winning 69 Ireland caps over a 15-year career, in addition to those five Lions Tours, Gibson was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2011.
 
Ian McGeechan (1974 & 1977)

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There’s no question that Sir Ian McGeechan will always be remembered as one of the greatest-ever Lions coaches, but he was also a very fine centre in his day.

Part of the Invincibles team that went unbeaten in South Africa in 1974, McGeechan was, like Gibson, an accomplished fly-half and centre.

On that Tour he combined with Dick Milliken in the centres, managing to withstand the charges of the South African centres and shut down their midfield threat.

For Hastings he will always hold a special place, having selected the Scot for his first international Test and his first Lions Tour.

Hastings explains: “I first got to know Ian when I was playing for the Anglo-Scots and he was just cutting his teeth as a coach.

“He then gave me my first cap for Scotland, and was brilliant on the Lions Tour in 1989 having already played for the Lions himself.

“I remember watching Mike Gibson and Ian McGeechan who were stars as players.”
 
Jeremy Guscott (1989, 1993, 1997)
 
Another known as the Prince of Centres, Jeremy Guscott got his first taste of a Lions Tour in 1989, weeks after making his international debut for England.

On that Tour he and Hastings combined to start in the second and third Tests as England came from behind to beat Australia 2-1.

And Hastings was left in no doubt as to the quality of his centre partner – one of the greatest he played with or against.

He said: “Jerry was the Rolls Royce of centres and had that X-factor and I definitely think he played some of his best rugby for the Lions.

“We played together in the Tests in 1989 and then in 1993. When it was myself, Will Carling and Scott Gibbs alongside Jerry, we knew we were playing for the other Test spot.”

A Lion on three separate Tours, arguably Guscott’s greatest moment came in 1997 when his drop goal secured a series victory over the Springboks, and added another line to his incredible rugby history.
 
Scott Gibbs (1993, 1997, 2001)

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In 1993 an injury to Hastings meant that it was Will Carling and Scott Gibbs who shared centre duties alongside Guscott against the All Blacks.

Four years on and Gibbs and Guscott were reunited for another go with the Lions, to brilliant effect.

With the gliding, graceful running of Guscott, and the defensive organisation and powerful carrying of Gibbs, the Lions had the archetypal centre partnership.

A cross-code international and a three-time Lion, Gibbs enjoyed some of his greatest moments in the Lions red, as well as one notable Five Nations tries – the last before Italy joined the tournament.

Brian O’Driscoll (2001, 2005, 2009, 2013)

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Mike Gibson retired as the greatest Irish centre of all time, and arguably one of the greatest to have ever played the game.

That Brian O’Driscoll managed to make the question of Ireland’s greatest centre a debate is testament to everything he achieved as a player.

A four-time Lion from 2001 to 2013, BOD started his Lions career alongside compatriot Rob Henderson, who was delighted to have the chance to partner a young O’Driscoll.

He explains: “When you go on a Tour with the Lions combinations are so important. It’s such a short period together that it helps being able to pick pairings that know each other.

“I was very fortunate to play with some fantastic players, both for Ireland and the Lions with Brian outside me.

“It worked well with one guy running hard to create space with good lines or running hard and offloading.”

Captain in 2005, and selected again in 2009 and 2013, the 2017 Tour to New Zealand will make the first time in 20 years that O’Driscoll is not part of the Lions squad – an incredible record for the most capped player ever from the home nations.

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