Analysis: Another new centre duo

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It’s fair to say that in a number of areas during the Wayne Pivac era so far, Wales have struggled to nail down any consistent partnerships or combinations.

Injury has certainly played a part in that, when it comes to the back row for example, but in the centre even with all options fit it is difficult to know who the head coach would select on any given weekend, with the likes of Jonathan Davies, George North, Johnny Williams, Owen Watkin, Ben Thomas and Aneurin Owen all in the player pool.

However, the duo that finished on Sunday in the win over Fiji certainly put their hands up as an interesting partnership going forward, with their variation and understanding, despite Willis Halaholo and Nick Tompkins having hardly played together beforehand.

It starts with the different pictures they showed the defence as they lined up in three different formations during first phase strike plays and into phase play, keeping the opposition guessing and trying to create holes to break through on the back of that confusion.

Through these clips there are little moments that stop the attacks being properly successful, as Halaholo struggled to link up with Dan Biggar, while Tompkins doesn’t connect cleanly with Adam Beard, but the switching up of the roles of the centres did lead to success as the game wore on.

With Halaholo in at inside centre the differing positions of Tompkins allowed the hot stepper the room to show off his mixed game as he had the option of carrying hard as more of crash ball option, stretching his legs and showing off that footwork and pace, or utilising his distribution skills and moving the ball wider through his centre partner.

Tompkins’ positioning supports that either by being close on a crash ball, giving him width in the outer channels to take defensive eyes off Halaholo, or when the chance is on to exploit the wide channels he offers more good distribution to get the ball into the hands of the back three.

Of course that final clip leads to a try in the corner, despite the best efforts of the back three to blow a three-on-one!

Then switching it up and Nick Tompkins brings a different skillset to inside centre. He’s a player who I have doubted at times since he came on to the scene as a Welsh international, but now back at Saracens playing regularly in the Premiership and shedding the weight gained on-loan at the Dragons he does seem to be getting back towards his best, if still a touch inconsistent.

What he offers is a bustling carrying game, that sees him accelerate a bit quicker than Halaholo so more able to speed through smaller gaps rather than step through, but crucially his distribution is good enough to step in at first receiver and form a dual playmaker system with Callum Sheedy that leads to that moment of Louis Rees-Zammit magic.

So it’s three tries that went through the hands of one or both of Halaholo and Tompkins in their short time on the field as they were part of what Wales failed to do in the first half and put the 13/14 men of Fiji to the sword.

Of course Australia this weekend and the Six Nations beyond that will provide tougher tests than the Pacific Islanders did on Saturday in terms of defensive structure and intensity, but there is certainly scope for this partnership to improve too as they develop a better understanding.

A play of real note saw Halaholo and Tompkins line-up in what the NFL would term a shotgun formation, standing one behind the other, and keeping the defence guessing on their direction until the last moment. They don’t even end up receiving the ball, but their presence draws the attention of the opposition and allows Taine Basham to make a big carry as Wales edge towards the try line.

In truth the success of the centre partnership will continue to rely on the players selected inside them, with the pack missing some ball carrying presence on Sunday, and the fortunes of the attack noticeably improving when Tomos Williams’s speed of ball from scrum-half was matched with Callum Sheedy’s ability to play flat at fly-half.

However, Tompkins and Halaholo can continue to develop their centre partnership despite any confusing half-back calls, and with Jon Davies now 33 and noticeably struggling after multiple knee problems it may well be one of the best options to take us to the World Cup in 2023.

Will we finally see Wayne Pivac select a side that suits Stephen Jones’ attack on a regular basis? I live in hope.

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