In September last year, we wrote an article entitled ‘England’s central dilemma: solving the midfield crisis‘, that focussed on England’s midfield options given that Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi, the go-to men of the year previous, had been ruled out through injury. It painted a relatively bleak picture of an inexperienced midfield with a huge Manu-shaped hole in it.
Miraculously, six months on, that ‘crisis’ seems to have been averted. Injuries to Barritt and Tuilagi proved a blessing in disguise for England who, leaving the failed Tomkins experiment to one side, have unearthed a couple of players who have forged a watertight partnership which was outlined last weekend when they combined for a superb try in the win over Wales.
Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell work well together. Twelvetrees, who has spent some of his career at fly-half, has the vision of a playmaker and the ability to know where to be, and when. He often pops up in the right place at the right time – witness his assist at the weekend, and he also started the length of the field move that so nearly resulted in a third England try.
Northampton man Burrell has been little less than a revelation – three tries in four starts is a top strike rate by anyone’s standards. He is a big man, and primarily offers the threat of being able to batter his way over the gainline, but there is actually much more to his game than that. He has soft hands and better distribution than Tuilagi, who occupied this shirt before him, and can cut a brilliant line as was in evidence for his tries against France and Scotland.
Then comes Tuilagi, who many say is too good to leave out. He certainly has freakish physical attributes that none of the others can boast, and can do things on a rugby pitch most mere mortals can only dream of, but how do you fit him back into a midfield that has started to gel so well? Named on the bench against Italy, it will be fascinating to see how Lancaster deploys him.
Kyle Eastmond is a wildcard option, and he will travel to Italy as the 24th man on Saturday. It is a move that has been used by Lancaster before to integrate new faces into the matchday environment, and one that suggests, despite not picking him in the Six Nations, that Eastmond is very much part of England’s future. With more ‘X Factor’ than any of the other options, that is no bad thing, and he certainly represents something completely different to the others.
Brad Barritt is becoming something of a forgotten man in these conversations and, to be honest, rightly so. Barritt’s importance lies in his defence – he offers little in attack, certainly nothing more than the other options – but the fact of the matter is that the Twelvetrees/Burrell combo has defended very well this Championship. There have been few line breaks through the centre channels in recent weeks, and that is a testament to the understanding and positioning of the incumbents, especially up against the likes of Lions duo Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies, not to mention the guile of Wesley Fofana.
Whether this changes when Tuilagi comes back into the side will be intriguing to see – defensive organisation is not his strong suit, and he was caught out a couple of times in his only appearance since returning from injury. That was against Newcastle Falcons, the bluntest attacking force in the Premiership, so you can understand any concerns.
Below is a breakdown of stats for the centres that have featured for England in the 2013 and 2014 Six Nations.
As always, these stats must be taken with a pinch of salt. They do, however, highlight a few interesting points. Brad Barritt is not an effective carrier, and when he plays with Tuilagi it limits the big man’s influence as he doesn’t have the distribution to effectively bring him into the game, either.
Billy Twelvetrees’ confidence has grown monumentally in the space of a year, to the extent that he is now heavily involved across the game. Interestingly, despite Tuilagi being lauded for it, Luther Burrell has been comfortably the most effective carrier. But don’t forget that pinch of salt – Tuilagi played exclusively outside Barritt, in an England team whose attack was still severely stilted.
What we all want to see now is what Tuilagi can do outside Twelvetrees, or even Burrell, both of whom have infinitely better distributing games than Barritt.
Stuart Lancaster once again has some tough decisions to make in the centres, but this time they are positive dilemmas – how to fit too many good players into not enough positions. Six months on after he faced such uncertainty in this area, it is a very welcome problem to have.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images
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