Recently by Paul Williams
Warren Gatland is set to announce his RBS 6 nation's squad on Wednesday 18th January at the Millennium Stadium and there is a growing clamor for Ashley Beck to take one of the centre berths. It's easy to see why. Beck's recent performances for the Ospreys are worthy of test rugby and this week they led Sean Holley, the Ospreys coach, to comment that "Ashley has to be knocking on the door for Welsh honours".
But these aren't the pushy comments of a regional coach trying to squeeze one of his players into contention for a Welsh cap (although some of the Osprey backline could do with a little positive propaganda), Beck would provide Gatland with a skillset that neither Jamie Roberts, Jon Davies or Scott Williams possess.
Ashley Beck is a rarity in Welsh rugby, indeed world rugby. The modern game has bred a generation of one dimensional centres whose primary focus is the gain-line and getting over it. The problem is that whilst many of these behemoths are efficient in getting over the gain-line, once they arrive there they lack the distribution skills to link with their support runners.
But Beck is different. In a game where 'destructive' skill sets have become desirable in the 12 and 13 shirts, Beck has developed a 'constructive' repertoire.
Many modern centres adopt a body angle which is already trained towards the ground before they've even approached contact. It's like watching an episode of Wales' Strongest Man where the object is to grit your teeth and drag as many back row forwards as far as you can until you are finally toppled by two halfbacks hanging off your neck. Yet Beck has a rare upright running style reminiscent of Will Greenwood, which when combined with two handed ball carrying allows him to offload before, during and beyond the contact situation.
Another key feature of Beck's constructive skill set is his ability to constantly scan the field of play even when running at full tilt. Whilst the rest of his body is playing professional rugby, his head often appears to be watching a frantic '5-setter 'at Wimbledon. This lateral scanning means that he's aware of his support runners and rarely ends up giving sloppy passes to the wings - the sort that of pass that has cost Wales a few tries in recent months.
Whilst his body position and awareness are impressive, it is his distribution skills that set him apart from Wales other more one dimensional centres - rugby may have become all about 'the inches', but sometimes it's still about the 30 yard pass. Beck passes supremely off both hands, and it is a skill that Gatland hasn't had at his disposal for some time. The ability to pass long off both hands becomes particularly important when teams operate an aggressive blitz defence. The blitz defence may be very effective at stopping the ball flowing through the backline, but if you can pass over the top of it, as Saracens proved against the Ospreys in Wembley, there's often a lot of fragmented space on the outside
Ashley Beck's deft skillset may lead you to believe that he isn't built for the impact of the 12/13 channel, yet it couldn't be further from the truth. Beck stands at 6'3" and weights 15st 7lbs; core stats that put him up there with the 'bang merchants' of world rugby. It's just in a rugby world where everyone seems obsessed with the leg drive; its Beck's hands that rightly attract the attention. Taking an average of the last three games that Beck, Roberts, Jon Davies and Scott Williams have played, Beck has thrown 50% more passes than each of them - and not the sort of no-look passes that fly directly into touch when there's a clear overlap.
Ashley Beck has had a very good start to the season and he offers Gatland a constructive skillset that none of the World Cup centres can currently provide. But whether a Welsh callup Beck-ons now, or on the summer tour of Australia, remains to be seen.
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