Damian De Allende is currently the best inside centre playing Test rugby, and the fact that he managed to return to rugby in time for the British & Irish Lions series, after suffering extreme burns, has been huge for the Springboks, writes Oliver Keohane.
Much has been said of outside centre Lukhanyo Am since the World Cup and over the British & Irish Lions tour, and rightly so. Am embodies understated class, and while he has been characteristically organised and imposing on defence, his attacking prowess over the series should not be looked over.
But next to Am, proving equally as valuable yet perhaps even more understated, has been Damian de Allende.
De Allende, as one commentator said this past Saturday during the Springboks 27-9 second-Test triumph, “does not put a foot wrong”. It’s hard to argue with that, and it is the industrious and disciplined work of De Allende that allows the Springboks so often set up the attacking patterns they do.
De Allende has grown into his role as a player who can be trusted to not lose you a game but also banked on to win one. Since the 2019 World Cup quarter final and the semi-final against Wales, where his solo try proved instrumental in the Boks beating Wales, De Allende has continued to shift up in gear. He is an out and out centre, yet his time spent on the wing for the Stormers in his early career marked a huge shift in his understanding of the game, and the effect of his time spent out wide is evident in his defensive organisation and calm on the ball.
He has been brilliant for Munster in Ireland, and his impact in the international set up was immediately obvious when turned out for SA ‘A’ to help them beat the British & Irish Lions just before the Test series began. De Allende compliments the way in which flyhalf Handre Pollard takes the ball to the gainline, in that he is able to work well with very little space. He carries the ball in two hands, very rarely drops it, and is often able to straighten the line without going backwards. Many inside centres in the close quarters of international rugby find themselves stagnated when trying to straighten the line, or shoveling the ball laterally and ineffectively in order to not go to ground.
What stands out is De Allende’s calm and his decision making. It is apparent whether he puts his head down, tucks the ball and runs straight or sends a pass out wide or looks for the offload, that he is calculated in the decision and not reactionary. His discipline as he has grown older and more experienced is also noteworthy, and his lack of retaliation to Maro Itoje’s disgraceful knee on his throat, showed the measure of a player who understood that the value of him remaining on the field in that second Test was so much bigger than the moment of possibly reacting to Itoje and getting sent off.
De Allende’s response in that Test was not to fight but rather to flourish, and his statistics read as follows over a full 80-minute shift (Via Jared Wright): Most carries from any Springbok (11), 23 running meters, two defenders beaten, one offload, ten rucks hit and eight tackles (only missing one).
Damian de Allende v #LionsRugby
– 3rd most ruck hits by a Bok back 💪
– Joint most carries in the game 👊
– 2nd most metres in the game 🏃♂️
– Joint 2nd most defenders beaten 🕺
– 3rd most defensive rucks hit by a Bok 🔥#BoksvLions #LionsSA2021 pic.twitter.com/EE9ApStANy
— Jared Wright (@jaredwright17) August 2, 2021
There are few better centre combinations in world rugby currently than De Allende and Am, yet their understated understanding of the game means they are often not granted the same fanfare and reporting as their flashier counterparts.
De Allende is nearing on 50 tests, with the upcoming third and final British & Irish Lions test marking his 48th appearance. It is a milestone so significant of his growth as a player since debuting in 2014, but also so indicative of a player who is undeniably in his peak. De Allende has proven since 2019 not only to be one of the most valuable members of the Springbok squad, but the best inside centre in the world.