Billy Twelvetrees – A Most Un-English Oak

Billy Twelvetrees

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

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18 comments on “Billy Twelvetrees – A Most Un-English Oak

  1. I’ve followed 36 for a couple of years and he’s always preferred to play 12 not fly half. He got used there by Leicester for injury cover and left to get regular game time at 12 as cockerill preferred Allen to start.

  2. Nice article and I agree he could be the right person for a problem position. I just hope that he gets the time to grow in to the role rather than be struck by the English curse of playing him for a few matches and then binning him should he not be a world beater in every match. I’ve got a feeling that this might not happen though.

  3. I think the other issue is if the future is 36 and Tuilagi, which one then has the job of organising the defence?

    • Farrell or Twelvetrees easy as Tuilagi is the weakest defensive centre in England and by that i don’t mean he falls of tackles!

  4. Lovely article! I totally agree. We have had the ‘crash and bash’ philosophy for far too long now! I’m not sure if we just simply don’t have naturally gifted 12’s in England or that it’s symptom of our style of play. It’s seems as you say we’ve had to turn to foreign imports to garner an element of creativity there and even then Rikki Flutey was the only light that briefly fluttered for me!!
    I find it interesting that Twelvetrees started off as an outside half. It makes me wonder if with the wealth that england has in this position that perhaps we shouldn’t experimented more moving these chaps out one. I felt Toby had a great game against Scotland for his cameo 30min and I’ve often felt Jonny Wilkinson could have flourished there towards the end of his english tenure.
    Regardless, having watched the Scottish game again in full (hats off to BBC Iplayer, great work btw), I am very hopeful for Twelvetrees. He seemed to be everywhere having a lot of influence on the game. Some of his running lines off the ball were exceptional with dummy runs a plenty, changes in direction and when he got the ball he always took to the gain line taking in several defenders. I think Farrel must have been very happy to have him outside him.
    He wasn’t shy at the breakdown either. The amount of clearing out he did at the rucks put me more in mind of an openside flanker at times. A cross between a 7 and 10 then. The ideal 12! Ok so he’s not quite Brad Barritt in terms of defence management yet. Well all he needs, for me, is time! Time working with his 10 and 13, figuring out how to shore up the gaps. At nearly 16st and 6’3” he’s certainly got the physical attributes.
    I sincerely hope he isn’t a flash in the pan because if can keep producing the same stuff as did with Scotland then he should have a really bright future.

  5. I saw Twelvetrees 3 years ago against the Ospreys and i knew from that moment that he would be a midfield savior for England i completely agree with the article but i’m going to say hands down he is going to be the benchmark of our side in years to come!

  6. ” a midfield savior for England” – no pressure on the lad then after just the one cap… Seriously though, while I agree he played tremendously shouldn’t it be taken a step at a time? He’s had a lot of eulogising in the press and now also this blog. Cipriani? Geraghty? Les Vainikolo?

    • I agree with you Brighty. But we are English and we must therefore get over-excited, put loads of pressure on the guy and then when he has a bad game we will slate him and call for his head!

      • Happens all the time Brighty, no matter which nation.

        Witness the kerfuffle over Cuthbert, North, Warburton, Gray, Bastereaud when they all first came to notice. I’m sure there are other examples I’ve forgotten.

        Its what happens when you have a 24 hour media, constantly demanding articles and opinions combined with professional PR outfits and press agencies.

        You end up with journalists desperately looking for and over-hyping the ‘next big thing’

  7. Brighty, I tried to cover that off with the last paragraph. I’m very much focussing on his potential which I think is fairly undeniable. It’s up to him to realise it. And with respect to Billy, I’dbnever go as far as describe him as a saviour.

    Having said that I don’t think the English have a monopoly on talking their players up. If you talk to your average Irishman, the Lions team will be exclusively made up of Irish, many of whom I’ve never heard of. And you Welshys aren’t exactly shy about it either.

  8. Stuart, the saviour comment was made Billy who I was replying to.

    As for the Welsh/Irish jibe – odd riposte. This isn’t a nationality thing for me – I gave examples of English players cos Twelvetrees is English. I didn’t say this talking up was an English trait. Not sure why you felt the need to point out that Welshys do it as well to me.

    I feel a bit for the boy to already be expected to be the thing England have been looking for since Greenwood departed. They are heavy words on his shoulders.

  9. Brighty, just stirring mate, no offence intended. I do agree with you about it being a heavy load on his shoulders. We’re always looking for the ‘new’ somebody or other. The amount of chat comparing Farrell to Wilko this week is extraordinary.

  10. First time I’ve commented here. Undoubted talent shown by Twelvetrees, seemed the proverbial duck to water. I think it’s important to acknowledge the part the management team played in that. It’s the first time since Woodward that we have a Head Coach with a clear vision of where English rugby needs to go. I think it unlikely a player who showed such promise would be discarded without a fair run under the present coaching team. We have to remember that it was a relatively easy debut, but Lancaster and co. seem to have a knack of identifying players that fit into the style of play and team ethos they are developing.

  11. Too much too soon? Never the less, a perfect description of the failings of english rugby since 2003 or, more to the point, since the retirement of Greenwood and Catt. He will be a fixture for England soon enough and, if he maintains his debut form, a cert for the Lions.

  12. Really good article,

    I would not pick 12trees to start against the itish, they are a great team and we wouldn’t want to destroy his confodence, one should not underestimate barrit’s defensive qualities.

    He is the future, he can make things happen for england that no other centre, at the present, can.

    Agree on Goode, he is limited at fullback, he doesn’t have the speed to beat a man and all the sidesteping doesn’t seem to get him anywhere, his distribution is good but that is not what a fullback is for.

    • I don’t think confidence would be an issue for Twelvetrees regardless of the result in Ireland. Lancaster has a nice dilema. Many think BOD will expose Tuilagi’s defensive frailties. On the other hand Tuilagi’s threat with ball in hand might just mean BOD’s first priority is defence. England will look to secure quick ball again and dominate the contact area -easier said than done against Ireland I know but that puts the whole team on the back foot and,as Wales showed, Ireland become vulnerable. It’s going to be fascinating. England just if they can win the back row battle.

  13. Guys thing about BOD is that he is a class act and he has these moments of genius so he is going to cause anyone he plays against difficulty. But Tuilagi has stood opposite Smith and not had too great an issue so he can’t exactly be a muppet. And as Haskell is likely to play we have one of the best defensive backrowers around playing too who is pretty good at organising. (check Haskell’s stats from his cameo against scotland, got joint 4th on tackles just from 30 mins) As we are going to miss Morgan’s sometimes outrageous go forward I would very much like to see Tuilagi play to get across the game line to make our fast ball effective. (unless of course you want to play billy vunipola then game line crossing should be facile :P )