Diagnosing England’s Backline Struggles: Chemistry 101

billy twelvetrees

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

28 thoughts on “Diagnosing England’s Backline Struggles: Chemistry 101

  1. I’d love to see an Eastmond/Burrell partnership, but such inexperience would be a big gamble to start in Paris, so I expect (hope?) it’ll be 36/Burrell.

  2. Totally agree on the ‘one world class attribute’ thing, absolutely essential for a player to make that step from good club player to world class international.

    Would like to throw curve ball in the centre mix- May at 13? Was initially suprised by people (Woodward) saying he should play there, but he’s looked good for gloucester there recently. Certainly has ‘world class’ pace, and as long as we have the requesite heft at 12 (which I think 12T can provide, or if not then Burrell), should really liven up our back line.

    Then a combo of Watson and Nowell on the wings- a good blend of pace, intelligence and strength there, just as Wade and Yarde would be- and Brown at 15, and we have a really dangerous backline suddenly…

  3. Hoping for Twelvetrees/Burrell, but half expecting to see Barritt in there over Burrell.

    It’s a difficult one. The key issue for me will be who he picks at 9. Dickson for me is not good enough, and I don’t care what anyone says, Danny Care can not start at 9 for England until he can box to a semi decent (at least) standard. Ben Youngs for me is the only scrum half that we have that offers all the attributes a class international 9 needs, and whilst not on top form, is still the best option we have.

    With Farrell at 10, we MUST have a running threat from 9 and in the centre, something we did not have from either in the Autumn. Twelvetrees can be a threat with the ball, but as mentioned in this article, he doesn’t have express pace nor size.

    9. Youngs. 10. Farrell 11. May (Yarde) 12. Twelvtrees 13. Burrell (Tuilagi) 14. Ashton (Wade) 15. Brown

    Three players missing from what I would call our first choice back line. I’m hoping this 6N we will develop some serious attacking intent which we can build on when those three are back.

    1. Agree with you completely on the 9/10 combo. Dickson/Ford and Dickson/Burns look OK as bench options, running FHs that can make use of the ball clearing the ruck faster. Youngs/Farrell is the only starting combination we’ve got at the moment though.

  4. Just to add- international backlines seem to have shied away from pure pace centres recently, cant think of one top 8 side with a real gas man other than Wesley Fofana? All seem to be the Skill/Size mix. Ben Smith when he plays at 13 rather than Conrad I guess would be another…

    Or you’re Wales and you play size and size.

    1. I would categorise Davies as more skill than size in the centre for Wales, but I agree about the lack of pace. That is not left to the wide men to provide!

      One skillful centre, one big centre, and a quick back three tends to be the trend, with the full back offering a better skill set that the wingers but also being quick. That’s how back lines work right!? Or am I being too simple?

      1. Nope you have pretty much got it spot on their Jacob. Though the wingers also tend to be massive as well as quick nowadays… And I do agree on Davies really- brilliantly player.

        It certainly works as a model and I would be perfectly happy if we could get the standard of players to fit it. However, just wondering if we don’t have the opportunity to try something a bit different and challenge the well drilled defenses who aren’t so used to facing pace in the centres? As Patrick says they seem happy to defend against the big guys all day- pace scares them.

        1. It would be interesting to see a really pacey centre thrown into the international stage, let’s remember even Fofana, whilst quick, has an unbelievable skill level as well.

          I can’t see that happening. Whilst a pacey centre would be great, defensively would they hold up? If someone like that came along, and could genuinely defend, they’d be one of the best players in the world!

      2. This is why I would class Davies as world-class. He fits into 2 categories seamlessly, size and skill and arguably into the 3rd as he has a fair bit of gas. He’s also bit of a cheat really because big blokes don’t have to be as quick to be threatening, as size + speed is a devastating combo e.g. Nonu or North.

    2. I think NZ always go for pace – arguably having the quickest 10 and 12 in the world with Carter and Nonu and always very quick wingers e.g. Savea, Jane, Smith etc..

  5. Interesting article, I wouldn’t classify someone like De Villiers as being outstanding in one area, but he’s 8/10 in all of them, same with JD2. The likes of Barritt and Tomkins are more 6/10 all rounders and seem to lack any real elite level attributes.

    The nagging doubt I have over Eastmond as a 12 is size, no doubt he’s an incredibly strong little guy but at 12.5 stone defending a channel that sees so much heavy traffic in international rugby is going to test the laws of physics. I still hanging on to the idea of him being impact super-sub, crazy feat and pace are going to make tired defences look stupid.

    Agree that Burrell looks to have the best chance of being true international class, he’s got the extra size/power, but he’s ahead of all-rounders like Tomkins and Barritt in the pace and skill department as well.

    Looking forward, with Manu back I would like to see us try a Burrell/Tuilagi combination. We are struggling for any pattern or fluency, so lets just go forward in the middle which then makes it much easier to find space out wide. Both being beasts doesn’t mean they are without pace or skill either (Burrell with his distribution/kicking, Tuilagi with his offloads). The idea of Tuilagi getting on the ends of offloads with the gainline already breached could cause some real mayhem.

    1. I think the Burrell/Tuilagi combo, if used to just crash repeatedly over the gainline, would only really work if you have a ten who could come round the corner and take the ball at pace to the line, then have the vision to attack the space either with a break or a pass. Enter Freddie Burns or George Ford, not Owen Farrell sadly.

      That said, you’re right that Burrell and Tuilagi do both have other sides to their games that people tend to disregard because they’re both quite big. Burrell in particular has excellent hands, so it’s a combo that could actually work, I think.

      1. Ford/Burrell/Tuilagi? Now that is an interesting backline… Stick some pacey wingers on the end of that and we might score some tries.

    2. Size shouldn’t be an issue for Eastmond as long as he tackles well. He’s a professional player, I would expect him to be able to handle bigger players. Size isn’t everything.

  6. I agree, I think it would be exciting to watch those 2 with some flyers Outside them. I think it will be 36 and barritt though to start against france

  7. Why is the sidestep,dummy and swerve not coached any more?Why is’nt the basic concept of working the ball to create space for your wingers coached anymore?Or don’t I understand the game?

  8. I am beginning to question what catt actually does to be honest. The ambition and plan for attack doesnt seem to have changed at all under lancaster and his team. Its great saying your going to play these pacy wingers but if they dont get the ball what good are they?

    Wallace played on the wing for saxons half that game and we lost the breakdown completely, I hope that isnt a tactic england hope to use in 6 nations!

  9. I would love to see how Eastmond could function outside 36, his feet and ability to find space could cause real problems to the best of the six nations sides. I also think Burrell could impose himself off the bench most spectacularly of the four. By the time Manu is back hopefully there will be some tough decisions to be made!

  10. Eastmond has great feet a devilish pass. His size will always be held against him however.

    As to what Catt does, well Farrell is Backs Coach, Rowntree is Forwards coach, and Catt is Skills coach.

    So my guess is that the others pick the players and the game plan, and Catt has to teach them how to pass :).

  11. As a Bath fan it does irk me a little than whenever people talk about Eastmond; they only ever talk about his feet.

    His hands are his main asset – he is comfortably the best distributor in the country.
    In terms of passing quality I’d say he’s the best player we have available by quite a distance.
    The reason he isn’t playing ten is simply that he doesn’t understand Union as well as the FH’s who have a ten year head-start on him.

    He delivers quick, flat passes at the right height, in-front of the player meaning they don’t have to check their run. Imagine Manu being put into space instead of into a wall…

    You then marry that with his running threat and you have the most potent attacking 12 in the country. It doesn’t really matter whether you are boshing or going round (or under!) tacklers as long as you have a running threat at 12.

    The only issue is his size IMO. Not his defence – because he will complete 99% of his tackles.
    If you have Bastareud running at him he is likely to concede an extra metre or so every few tackles. But as a Bath fan I can’t say I am every worried about his defense.
    His passing makes up for any ground lost ten fold.

  12. I also don’t think Burrell will make the step up to international level.
    He’s just a slight upgrade on Tomkins.

    He’s not slow, but he’s not exactly pacy.
    He’s (quite) big but is nowhere near as physical as players like Nonu, Tuilagi or Roberts.
    His distribution is flaky at best.

    1. I’m going to come up in Burrell’s defence here,
      He is surprisingly quick and runs really well for a big man, much quicker than 36 or manu. and runs in the same style as emile ntamack very smooth hip movements for change of direction.
      I’ll give you the size thing but as he carries faster than tomkins on more aggressive lines he gets more success.
      His distribution is the thing i like most, its the fact that he carries the ball right to the line in 2 hands so you don’t know if he is going to pass it, run over the top of you or try and step around you. I was so impressed with that even when Northampton got smashed by leinster.

  13. I’d love to see Eastmond + Manu, Eastmond is a fantastic talent and his distribution is probably his strongest point. During the Arg tests it was his passing that impressed me far more than his pretty try. Very dangerous player indeed, but I don’t know if he’ll ever have his chance. He seemed to get a bit more ball in hand recently which is useful, hopefully have some chance to show AP form, because right now he’s considered maybe 5th? or worse choice centre, I don’t know why, but if they aren’t going to use him and instead use Tomkins/Burrell/Trinder, they may as well drop him from the EPS.

  14. I think eastmond at 12 might help balance the lack of creativity/threat at 9 and 10 we have currently. If we persist with Farrell then we need eastmond/36 in there. Personally eastmond is the one for me with burrell outside him.

  15. I actually think Kyle is Lancaster’s second choice 12 behind 36 to be honest.
    From what I’ve seen in recent interviews he explicitly mentions 36 and Kyle as his inside centres and Burrell and Barritt as his options at 13.
    Unfortunately I can’t see him being used either.
    Which is a shame because I could see him absolutely dominate Italy or Scotland, giving him the confidence to play against the “bigger” teams.

  16. I think England are missing that blend of skill and desire to play with pace and tempo. We nearly have the intense forward pressure that the boks can exert, a little desire to play like Leinster or such would blow teams away. Sadly, the Irish rarely replicate their domestic form, what chance do we have that Stuart Lancaster will take a leaf out their prosperous attacking books.

  17. I think SL will play 36 and Barritt (if only for the France game). I would worry if France picked Fofana and Basterraud in the centres and Barritt wasn’t playing. 36 is a good player, but against two players like that, I would worry about his defensive capabilities. Burrell deserves a game, and I would play him against Scotland and Italy. But if we lose the first game away to France, it will make winning the tournament so much more difficult. If 36 and Burrell start, and France are walking through the middle of the pitch, who comes on to put it right? Ford, Eastmond? It won’t be exciting, but I think Barritt has to start the France game.

  18. James

    Agree. IMO it’s down to SL’s lack of will… so no skill. In fact the only time I recall England try a wrap around e.g. was v the Barbarians who are a busted flush these days. It’s v top opponents that England need to try these moves & esp if a guy like Wade is played! He needs quick pill, in space.

    Don’t know enuff regds Eastmond, but if he’s as gd as some say, why mot start him v France? Could he have done worse than Tomkins who, acc to SCW, didn’t pass the ball once! SL’s sights have to be beon the WC, not just the 6N… & time’s runnin’ out.

    I know some think I’m anti English etc, but Dallaglio & a few other commentators (English!) seem to concur with me in that, esp England’s midfield, is moribund.

    Why can’t SL see it?! He’s got pleny of players, so why doesn’t he unleash ’em!

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