Stuart Lancaster’s comments this week that the traditional dichotomy between 12 and 13 no longer applies to the modern game raised some interesting questions, most notably of which, how would England shape up in the midfield against France next weekend? England’s backline, despite improved team performances in the Lancaster era, has never managed to catch fire, despite the feeling among English fans that there is more young talent around than there has been for a long time.
England’s makeshift centre combination of Billy Twelvetrees and Joel Tomkins was not a rousing success in this past autumn series. The reason for their disfunction was, to my mind, a product of the lack of balance between the three crucial elements that a world-class backline must possess to be successful: speed, size and skill. I believe an individual player, to be considered genuinely ‘international’ class, must possess one of these three attributes to an ‘elite’ standard, so that they can always offer something to trouble a defence.
For example, Manu Tuilagi is capable of producing on the international stage as he has elite level size, whilst also having an excellent (though arguably not world-class) level of speed and skill, meaning defences always have to account for his whereabouts. By comparison, Conrad Smith, undoubtedly a world-class operator, may not possess elite athletic talents, yet has an elite skill level as an outside centre, both physically in terms of his lines of running and passing, and mentally in terms of support play, defensive organisation etc.
I believe the problem with the England backline (and the midfield in particular) in recent years has been an unstable imbalance between these fundamental elements. Most noticeable in the autumn, once Marland Yarde went down, was that England lacked pace out wide. As any coach knows, pace is one element that is impossible to defend. Your guys can muscle up against the big boys, but they can’t get any quicker. Pace is what turns half breaks into line breaks, line breaks into tries.
It is what makes New Zealand so dangerous; there is pace throughout their side, which allows them to score seemingly from nowhere. It gives them the ability to score from just one opposition mistake. England have not been set up to capitalise on these kinds of opportunities.
Consequently, I believe Tomkins’ struggles in the autumn are attributable to his lack of elite quality in any of the three categories mentioned. He never looked like he was going to have the pace to beat the man in front of him, the power to force a missed tackle, or the guile to unlock a wall of defenders.
Twelvetrees, by contrast, is a player who does possess exceptional skills, although perhaps is still acclimatising to the demands of international rugby. There have been enough flashes to inspire confidence, however, and what was promising about his performances in the autumn was the increase in physicality and aggression as the series went on. A willingness to use his considerable bulk added an extra dimension to his game, making sure the defence had to account for him as not just a distributor but as a powerful running threat.
So where should England go to remedy this lack of chemistry? Of the four options available to them – Twelvetrees, Barritt, Eastmond and Burrell – there is plenty of variety. Clearly there is a need to inject pace into the side. Mike Brown is nailed on, and rightly so, to the England 15 jersey. However, he is not blessed with world-class speed. Chris Ashton appears to be the lovechild of Andy Farrell – seemingly the only explanation for how the 14 shirt has been glued permanently to his back. Andy’s true heir Owen is never going to win many foot races. The inclusion of Danny Care at scrum-half would go some way to injecting some fast-twitch into England’s sluggish backs.
Of the four midfielders selected, I would argue Luther Burrell possesses the best blend of all three skill-sets to be an outstanding international player. He has shown the pace to glide through gaps, the power to create holes and a deftness of touch that can put other players through them. He would be my, and many others’, selection for one of the starting berths.
Categorising Barritt proves more difficult – he is solid in all three categories, with perhaps his defensive capabilities worthy of being deemed world-class. Barritt’s lack of athletic gifts ought not to be a permanent barrier to selection however; he would simply have to be partnered with someone with more pace.
Enter Kyle Eastmond. Eastmond is a unique player, a beautifully balanced runner (often with the ball in two-hands) and he can make defenders look foolish. Whilst he is still learning the game from a mental perspective and has some maturing to do in that regard, I would argue he should be on the bench, ahead of Alex Goode, who, whilst a fine player, has about as much impact as an ERC meeting.
As all coaches know, selection is often more alchemy than chemistry. However, Burrell could be the missing element alongside Twelvetrees that would give England a backline capable of taking of advantage of the development of an impressive young pack of forwards.
By Patrick Cheshire (@jpcheshire)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images