There are some countries on Planet Rugby who don’t really do certain positions. France and fly halves springs to mind, along with Australia and props. Similarly certain countries like a particular position to play a certain way. Contrast your typical Welsh fly half with his South African counterpart – the Welsh like their 10 to have flair and guile; the South Africans simply require someone who can kick the leather off the ball. The French like their scrum half to run the game, to be the man in charge (explaining the apparent obsolescence of his half back partner) while most countries give that role to the fly half. English back rowers are hard, ball-carrying and destructive, their rivals are often smaller, quicker, more skilful and constructive.
Granted, many of these are sweeping generalisations, some of them outmoded. But this difference in approach to certain positions is most amply demonstrated by the role of the man in the 12 shirt. Even the variance in the name for the position between the hemispheres tells a tale. Down south he is a ‘second five-eighth’, a second playmaker taking the pressure off and often interchanging with the ‘first five-eighth’ or fly half. Up here he is an inside centre, an outside back more likely to switch with his mate outside him than inside. Less of a playmaker, he is often a big man running straight lines designed to hold a defence, draw in defenders and create space for the quick men out wide. But his role can be ill-defined, providing neither the direction nor the cutting edge.
And it is this inability to pigeon-hole the role of the 12 which explains why England struggle to find a decent one. In England, we love to put a player into a particular box. Fly halves have to be able to manage a game first and foremost – those who play more off the cuff are not trusted. Quade Cooper would barely have got a look in up here. Wingers should either be lightning fast or physical enough to be used up the middle. Wily, tricky, rounded wingers like James Simpson-Daniel, are a source of confusion to strait-jacketed English rugby norms. It is often easier to define a twelve by what he is not rather than what he is. He is not quite big enough for a forward, not quite skilful enough for a half back and not quite quick enough for the outside backs. Do we send him to the gym, the video analysis room or kicking practice? We therefore tend to go with some solid but fairly artless bosh-merchant who will create little but will make his tackles and offer the odd big carry.
There are signs that the national team has been aiming to move away from this model for some time. Henry Paul, Shontayne Hape and Riki Flutey were all tried, only the latter with any success. And what do these players have in common? None of them are English. Even if some of them were a fair distance short of test class, they are all players with the physicality for the centre but also the vision and ability to put people into holes. In short, they were not players who were not quite good enough to play anywhere else, they are actually more rounded players, the sort we don’t tend to produce ourselves.
Which brings us to Billy Twelvetrees. He started as a fly half, struggled to get a regular start for Leicester and played a few games in the centre. It was his move to Gloucester which led to the positive decision to move him out one on a permanent basis, not because he wasn’t quite good enough as a 10, but because he has the raw materials to make one hell of a 12. He is physical, has excellent distribution, a huge boot and thrives in the increased space and less structured brief which the centre position allows. He also has vision and a fly half’s brain, essential for a second playmaker taking huge pressure off the man inside him. This is not a very English set of skills.
Inevitably, as with all his recent predecessors, he has been compared to Will Greenwood and Mike Catt (another non-English born 12). These two men have benefitted from the views of revisionist historians studying the England team at the turn of the century some of whom you would have you believe Jonny Wilkinson was just a left foot incapable of thinking for himself. However they undoubtedly were both outstanding and hugely influential players. Greenwood is seen as almost unique in English rugby for the rounded skills, vision and sheer rugby brain he possessed. He was not lightning, not huge, didn’t kick, rarely smashed people. He was just very good. He too was a very un-English player.
Twelvetrees, whether he is selected to play in Dublin or not, has the potential to be a worthy long-term successor to Greenwood. He will have ups and downs which will be magnified as always happens when a player has hopes pinned upon him. He will face far tougher examinations that he did against Scotland but he looked comfortable and happy to take the initiative. A midfield comprising him and Tuilagi provides a balance and edge the like of which England have rarely seen. Strangely the biggest loser in his ascent could be Alex Goode who was picked for his ability to play as a second playmaker in the absence of a visionary 12. With Twelvetrees providing that, England could do with a full back who hunts in the wider channels benefitting from his distribution, such as Brown and Foden.
It is always dangerous to talk a rookie young international up too much. I look back on an article I wrote a few years ago about Shane Geraghty with a mixture of embarrassment, disappointment and amusement. We are talking potential and raw material here, and Twelvetrees has it in spades. He is also playing at a time when the England set up is enlightened enough to see it. He could well prove to be the right man in the right place at the right time.
By Stuart Peel
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images