A Welcome Problem to Have: England’s Central Riches

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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.

stats

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

Accenture, Official Technology Partner of the RBS 6 Nations, brings you deeper insight into the Championship. Follow @AccentureRugby for all the latest stats and analysis.

28 thoughts on “A Welcome Problem to Have: England’s Central Riches

  1. As you mentioned, Barritt is often mentioned for his defence. I had a look at his tackling stats from the same 4 matches in 2012 as Twelvetrees has played this year (Ireland and Wales at home, Scotland and France away):

    Twelvetrees: Made 40, missed 7 (85%)
    Barritt: Made 35, missed 5 (88%)

    As you mention, that’s not compelling enough to pick Barritt on defence alone. Plus he’d never have put that grubber through for the Burrell try against Wales.

    1. I know you won’t want to be reminded, but didn’t Barritt put in a fantastic kick a few weeks ago to allow Strettle to score against your boys? ;-)

      Barritt was the right choice when SL took over. At the time they had to get the defence sorted out, and Barritt was at the centre (no pun intended) of how the system worked. He’s still a very good player, but now the defence is working without him in the team, I don’t see any reason why he needs to be in it.

      1. Come off it, that came from a turnover when we were in their 22, he basically kicked it into an empty half of the field – not really the same thing. ;-)

        1. Nicely weighted though!

          I would much rather see Burrell, Tuilagi, 36 and Eastmond retained as the choice centres. Barritt did a job at the time, but I can’t see him getting back in now. Or Tomkins for that matter.

  2. Barritts defence was more than his own tackles though, he ran the defence. But it looks like 36 has taken that job over, he is nearly always the lead in our blitz, and as said, our defence hasn’t looked too shabby. I think Barritt will even struggle to stay in the EPS now.

  3. Really nice problem to have. When you consider that in 6 months time we will also have Burgess to debate over – could get even more competitive!

    It will be interesting to see where SL brings Tuilagi on at the weekend. Assuming there isn’t an injury we may see what partnership SL prefers.

    Based on his comments regarding centres at the beginning of the tournament, I’d be surprised if we saw him play with Burrell. I can’t remember the exact quote, but it was along the lines of the 12/13 positions being a myth, and actually you just need one ball player and one gain line breaker in the centres. Obviously that means he has used Burrell as the gain line breaker, and therefore putting him with Tuilagi slightly contradicts his previous comments.

  4. I think 36 is very unlikely to come off. As stated in the article, he’s a first receiver, better at it than Farrell in fact. If we want to go for the two sided attack, we effectively need 2x10s, and 36 is perfect for that, if Farrell was a better attacking force, and didn’t have the half second pause when he receives the ball, then he would be perfect too. I don’t know how Burrell goes at first receiver, so would think he’s mostly going to be viewed as the basher part of the relationship.

  5. Great problem to have although I would sy Barritt is finished as far ass I’m concerned in this England team.

    12ts and Manu have never had the chance to play together, Manu has looked good through a period of slow English ball and bad passing. The threat tht 12ts offers will free up more space for Manu and he can be even more effective.

    Burrell can cover inside and outside centre with grace so he would be my bench option, he is a great player but he is not as powerful or as scary ass Manu and not as good a distributor as 12ts. So he loses out at the moment. Not against Italy mind you, too early for manu.

    We are going to NZ in the summer and I think that they would be more scared of Manu than Burrell. However injuries happen and we need a squad not a team so Brurrell and Eastmond are very important as well.

  6. Interesting stats. Looks like Barritt is very much in the reserve category now, but I don’t mind that. He’s an experienced centre who’s never let England down, and lest we forget, his stats will also be slightly skewed by the fact that he was playing in a limited attacking plan. Useful option to have in reserve, but not the future of English attack play, I fully accept!

  7. Don’t underestimate Burrell’s ability as a playmaker at 12. He is more than capable of covering that aspect. A very good off-loader, and his kicking has improved a lot since Alex King’s arrival at Northampton.

    I would be interested to see Ford, Burrell and Tuilagi playing together.

  8. Think riches is a bit of an overstatement! We are in a much better position in that we can lose Tuilagi and not lose all hope of going forward (where we were in the Autumn!).

    All we’ve seen of Eastmond is one start and one replacements appearance against a second string side. He’s got potential, but we haven’t seen him yet against any quality opposition (sadly!).

    Barritt is excellent without the ball, however there’s no evidence that this can be extrapolated to “England can’t defend without Barritt” which many people have assumed. Even when we had Flood, Manu and JJ against the Boks our midfield defence didn’t fall apart, the systems work and we don’t need Barritt to sure it up. I would hope that Burrell, 36 and Eastmond are all ahead of him for 12 selection. Think he’s got a useful role to play in a Saxons squad helping out some of the younger guys but there’s no need for him to get another cap.

    So that leaves us with 3 guys who have all demonstrated they can produce quality international performances, which is the bare minimum you would want. Of those 3 one is regularly injured and one hasn’t been consistently good so more proven options would still be useful, some way to go before we can call it ‘riches’.

    1. Unless you watch Bath games, in which case we’ve seen what he can do against a variety of opponents.

      1. At Premiership and Amlin level though.

        At the time I thought Eastmond’s emergence was the most exciting development of the Argentina tour, it’s criminal we’ve not seen him since. But until we see him against quality international opposition we can’t tag him ‘riches’ and he remains ‘potential’.

    2. Don’t forget that Farrell is an option at 12. Him and Ford are a very good combination. They worked very well together in the U20’s squad at 10 and 12.

  9. I said on another thread recently, we have 4 proven international centres of which Barritt is one. He has never let England down, but agreed that he doesn’t offer as much either. The other potential centres are just that at the moment. 18 months ago most people would have staked their reputations on JJ being the answer, but he’s never really looked like doing it at the next level to me, and SL seems to agree. However 4 is 2 more options than we had 12 months ago!

    1. Another thought. At the moment, I wouldn’t be too worried if Barritt had to start against NZ or SA. I would if Eastmond was starting. Now I think Eastmond could well prove to be an excellent international centre but at present who knows.

      1. I wouldn’t be worried if Barritt started, but I wouldn’t be excited either!

        He gave us the midfield solidity when we needed it, but we’ve moved beyond that now and shouldn’t go back there. I would rather we go with Eastmond and find out whether he can cut it or not, we have to pick him to find out.

  10. I want to see Eastmond get a decent opportunity against some “proper” opposition. He offers something completely different to any other English centre, and although he may only be considered as a centre thus far by England, has the skills needed to cover pretty much anywhere in the back line if needed. Maybe it’s because Bath haven’t had the European exposure this year?

  11. Whatever combo England have in fly1/2/midfield, they’ll have some ‘real oppo’ as someone wanted to see in June. Then it will be seen how good they are, incl Burrell.

    1. I think the “someone” is all of us Don. I don’t believe that there is any doubt that New Zealand is a fantastic proving ground for international players.

  12. I read an interesting article in the New Zealand Herald recently which suggested that New Zealand have some cause for concern, as England will arrive with a strong team, capable of ending New Zealand’s winning streak.

    I believe we will win one of those three tests, but it certainly won’t be the first one. I also think we will text out the likes of Ford and Watson there too. But that might just be false hope!

  13. Banastre

    In theory yr best bet may be the 1st test as NZ can sometimes be a bit slow out of their traps as per Ireland last time.

    But thereafter it should be even tougher after they’ve warmed up a bit… as per…, but we’ll see.

  14. Banastre

    Is that the Chris Rattue: ‘We’re good, but not that good’ article?

    A friend of mine reckons I look @ the 1/2 empty glass (poss cos he’s got religion & it’s his bloody round!), but I feel a whole lot better after seeing Chris R rattling on.

    But was CR maybe down with the Norovirus (ha, ha) when the Ellis Park game was on? Did he watch the Chiefs play ball this morning?

    Look no team is unbeatable. Oz, e.g., beat the ABs before the last WC, but I don’t see CR’s view as other than jaundiced.

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