Moving down the three quarter line from half-backs to centre and the position we’ve had some serious issues with over the past few years. From the days of Casey Laulala, Tom Shanklin, Jamie Roberts and Gareth Thomas it’s been downhill until we were bolstering the midfield with Welsh Premiership players, and even Tavis Knoyle, whilst praying for no injuries.
However, last season things finally began to look up for Cardiff in the centre as Samoan international Rey Lee-Lo was a bit of a revelation having signed from Hurricanes. Joining the squad in October after the World Cup he started off at 13 while he adapted to Northern Hemisphere rugby and began his Arms Park career quite slowly. It wasn’t until December that he lined up at 12 for the first time and his performance level went through the roof.
Despite not appearing to be in the same ilk as a Jamie Roberts or Ma’a Nonu physically, he is a very good ball carrying inside-centre which can be used as a go-to tactic. To go with that though he has a quick pair of feet making him a well-rounded midfield player who bounces off Gareth Anscombe extremely well. After a successful summer away with Samoa I can’t wait to see a full season of Lee-Lo performing at the highest level.
Hopefully this year he can start to form a partnership with Cory Allen outside him as well as Anscombe inside as the Welsh international returns to full fitness. Injury restricted Allen to just six appearances last season, five with Lee-Lo, but he still managed to bag four tries to underline his quality. After a breakthrough season in 2013-14 and 20 appearances in 14/15, last season was a big blow to his development.
Now though Allen has benefitted from a summer with the Great Britain 7s training squad and an extended pre-season stint at Cardiff to get back into a healthy shape. His speed to beat opposition midfielders could compliment space created by Lee-Lo extremely well, and the ability to produce an offload will feed the try merchants on the wing very nicely, as long as all fingers are crossed for an injury free season.
If all of the above goes to plan then international honours could well be on the way for Allen, adding to his four caps, meaning a replacement will be needed. Fortunately, the club have headed to New Zealand and signed up Willis Halaholo from Hurricanes. The Kiwi arrives as a time-server spouting all the normal spiel about ‘wanting to play for Wales’, but we’ll just enjoy him in a Cardiff shirt for now.
Halaholo has had a very successful Super Rugby season, despite only being part of the wider Canes training squad before 2016, playing a vital role in helping them win the Southern Hemisphere competition. Filling the shoes left by Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu is no mean feat but Halaholo stepped up impressively.
Being comfortable at both inside and outside centre I think we’ll see him predominantly at 13 alongside Lee-Lo, and with a bit of banter between the Samoan, Anscombe and Halaholo on Twitter already, there’s a good chance that midfield trio could be a force in the Pro12. For a bigger man Willis has a killer change of gear and a beautiful passing game, while at 26 his best years are still ahead of him. Potentially the signing of the season.
Covering the three established centres is first year senior professional Garyn Smith. After breaking onto the Pro12 scene towards the end of Paul John and Dale MacIntosh’s second caretaker spell, it seemed the Pontypridd product may not feature heavily under Danny Wilson as he made just four starts before March. However, a try scoring appearance at home to Munster saw him start each of the last six games in 2015/16.
Having played all of his senior professional rugby at 13 up until now it seems the long term plan for Smith may be 12. An off-season spent adding some muscle to his frame has readied him for the defensive leadership role of inside centre and an apparent ease at first receiver will help him out. Add to that some pace alongside a good passing range and you do have the makings of a Pro12 inside centre. Will it come off? We’ll have to wait and see.
Waiting in the academy wings for a chance to impress in the first team are two exciting young centres in Harri Millard and Owen Lane. Starting with Wales under-20 international Millard, he made his Pro12 debut last year off the bench in Glasgow and also appeared as a substitute at home to Newport.
Three starts from inside centre at the Junior World Championship over the summer further raised his stock and hopefully a strong season in the British and Irish, and Anglo-Welsh, Cup alongside taking some Pro12 chances when they arrive, will stand him in good stead for a career as Cardiff’s number 12.
To complete the future centre partnership at 13, Lane needs to follow a similar pathway. At just 18 he has already played for the senior side in last pre-season, as well as making his BIC debut for Cardiff A in 2015 and eight Cardiff RFC appearances. With Wales U18 honours already under his belt I’m sure it will be no time before the 20s come calling. A career to watch!
Overall the quality is definitely on show in the centres at the moment and it’s an exciting time for the Cardiff midfield. It may seem that we are slightly light on the ground but when you consider that Steve Shingler and Aled Summerhill are both comfortable at 12 and 13, respectively, then we are well covered for this area of the pitch and hopefully there’ll be plenty of tries to follow. Come on Cardiff!!