England’s central dilemma: solving the midfield crisis

On 17th November last year, England lined-up to take on Australia at Twickenham with Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi wearing 12 and 13 respectively. In the space of a couple of weeks, they have both been side-lined with injury, leaving head coach Stuart Lancaster with a selection dilemma in the midfield. If Barritt’s place in the starting line-up was questionable, Tuilagi’s name was surely one of the first on the teamsheet given his ability to do things on the rugby pitch no other player in the world is capable of – see last weekend’s brutish burst against Newcastle for proof of that.

So where does this leave Lancaster et al? His current centre options in the EPS are Billy Twelvetrees, Kyle Eastmond, Anthony Allen, Jonathan Joseph, Joel Tomkins, Luther Burrell and Elliot Daly, leaving plenty of potential combinations.

Barritt’s replacement seems fairly obvious. Billy Twelvetrees has been around the England squad for a while now, and impressed when given his chance in last year’s Six Nations. There seems to have been a bizarre notion going around recently that he is not powerful enough for an international inside centre, but I’m not quite sure where that idea’s come from, as he is 6’3″ and weighs in at around 16 stone. He is regularly used by Gloucester to get over the gainline, but where he differs from other crash-ball merchants of England’s past (think Hape, Noon etc) is that he has the distribution and kicking-game honed by time spent playing at fly-half. This does not mean he cannot do the one-dimensional stuff, however.

Lancaster’s other options at 12 are Eastmond, Allen and Burrell. Eastmond could suffer from the same jack-of-all-trades tag that a certain Austin Healey did, given his ability to cover 12-15. This makes him the perfect bench-man, and this is where I see him featuring in the Autumn. Also, if there were doubts about Twelvetrees’ size…

Luther Burrell is coming into some excellent form for Northampton, but I’d expect Lancaster will want to give him a run in the Saxons before thrusting him into the full international arena. If he copes well there, however, he certainly has all the attributes to push Twelvetrees in the future.

Anthony Allen is a player who has been cruelly overlooked for many years now – any Tigers fan will tell you how good a player he is. When he burst onto the scene as a raw 19-year old he was one of the most dangerous attacking centres around, but a chastening experience with England (which was far from his fault) saw him withdraw into his shell a little. This has seen him unfairly pigeon-holed as merely a ‘solid’ player, when he is so much more than that. Sadly, at 27, he is probably not the long-term solution Lancaster is looking for.

Thirteen is more of a problem position, as the hole left by Tuilagi is a much bigger one, in more than one sense. In the last year he has scored five tries and assisted in two for England – to put that into context, no one else has had a hand in more than three.

His potential replacement is far less clear cut than Barritt’s. Jon Joseph has been relegated to the Saxons, after enduring a tough season with London Irish – he is yet to light up the Bath backline, either. On his day his quick feet and raw acceleration make him quite a threat, but for now poor form has seen him drop down the order.

Joel Tomkins is an intriguing proposition. He is similar in stature to Twelvetrees but has an excellent eye for a gap, and is probably the most capable in the offloading department of all the options available. He has been in superb form for Saracens, too. However, if Twelvetrees is to start at inside centre, for me the man playing 13 needs to be nippier – someone capable of fading into a classic outside break to whom Billy can fizz a pass in space.

dalyThat bring us nicely to a couple of wildcard options – Elliot Daly and Henry Trinder. Only the former is in the EPS squad, but the latter has been superb in the Premiership so far, and scored one of the solo tries of the season against Exeter last year. With their raw pace and side-stepping prowess, either would compliment Twelvetrees superbly (one of them, in fact, does so week in week out at Gloucester).

In our recent poll, the most-picked combination was Twelvetrees and Eastmond. With both of them more suited to 12 it is unclear whether this combo would be particularly successful – but on paper it looks dangerous, and in reality it is the most likely (they are both in the senior EPS squad, while all the other options are in the Saxons). Both are excellent distributors but with Eastmond there, Twelvetrees would probably be asked to play more of a hard-hitting, power game. If that opened up some gaps for Eastmond to exploit, the potential for clean breaks aplenty is tantalising.

The loss of Tuilagi is a huge, huge blow for England, but his injury does at least let Lancaster get a look at a potential replacement for him should (and I don’t want to tempt fate) he end up injured for a certain important tournament in 2015. Every cloud, and all that.

By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43

Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images

12 thoughts on “England’s central dilemma: solving the midfield crisis

  1. Thinking about it now, Twelvetrees and Eastmond could almost be the perfect combo. As you said Twelvetrees is more than capable of crash-ball work, but is also very adept at the fancy stuff too. I think both players are capable of swapping positions and playing what (or who) is in front of them.
    Twelvetrees crashes up a few times, the defence think they know what’s going to happen, next time he offloads or steps, and the defence are pulled out of position, leaving gaps for Eastmond to exploit! Exciting.
    I think Eastmond is a better all round player than Joseph. Joseph has good speed, and quick feet, but Eastomnd is a better distributor, and also has great speed and turn of pace.
    Just glad I don’t have to make the decision.

  2. I’m not sure I like the idea of Twelvetrees/ Eastmond. I want Twelvetrees to play like he does week in week out; like an all round 12. He can carry, kick, distribute, step – I really think he could be class. If Eastmond was outside him I can see him being forced into being a ball carries through the channel, and I think it’s a waste of his skills.

    For me Twelvetrees is a shoe in, even if Barritt was fit, and Eastmond walks into the 23 shirts as he is good cover. 13 is tough, but I’d lean towards Tomkins.

  3. I agree with Dazza. I’ve no idea why people think 12Trees isn’t physical enough – he’s a big lad.

    Gloucester use him on the crashball and there’s no reason England couldn’t too. Besides do we not want to see more skills from our players rather than just trying to smash through the opposition?

    I’d see a 12Trees/Eastmond combo as similar to Nonu/Smith for NZ (though obviously not as good!). An inside centre who can crash the ball up but can also distribute and offload and an outside centre with a surprising turn of pace and an ability to set the back three free.

  4. Apparently Daly, Tomkins and Eastmond are all nearly back from injury so I expect Lancaster to do what he has been good at so far- picking on form. The next few weeks will be massive for these players, but you have to fancy Tomkins- playing for the current premiership leaders, he’s more likely going to get a chance to impress than the others. Especially as he plays with farrell, ashton etc regularly so will fit in easier.

    Though I am going to reiterate what I said on the other post: 12trees and Daly. Pace, guile and all-round footballers. Plus Daly’s ‘howitzer’ boot would be a serious addition to our arsenal.

    I hope we don’t start playing people out of position- i.e. eastmond/burrell at 13. Tried it with brown/wood and it doesn’t really work! We saw with Davies in the lions, 12 and 13 are different positions, its not as easy as everyone thinks to completely change your running patterns and defensive positioning. Would be a harsh baptism of fire to debut either of them in different positions to their club role against some of the best of the southern hemisphere…

  5. I’ve found it weird, since his return to seriously good form, that Banahan has not been even mentioned in any of the looks at centre. At Bath he’s having an absolutely storming season and there’s few better at getting over the gain line in the midfield. He may not have the distribution or wildcard skills of some of the others listed, but I’m surprised he’s not even being mentioned as a possible call-up.

    1. He was pretty poor at 13 for bath against sarries, albeit playing outside a much weaker backline/halfback partnership. He looks properly dangerous on the wing, George ford pulls the strings and he has the nimble centre partnership of Eastmond and JJ to run off. Didn’t banahan bust his shoulder in the sarries game too?

      1. I didn’t see the match, but it’s not that easy to look good against Sarries at the moment! At either 11 or 13 he’s a very dangerous player, which is why it surprises me there’s been no whispers about him since 2011, especially with a big ball-carrier like Tuilagi out.

  6. Twelvetrees and Eastmond. Easy. Two of the stand out performers from Argentina, and 36’s start to the season has been outstanding.

  7. 36 and Eastmond could potentially be a titanic attacking threat. When you have footwork and pace like eastmonds (check out his try against Argentina, beautiful step and acceleration coupled with amazing footwork and ball in two hands) you can’t say he wouldn’t do a job for England there. Especially as he’s next in line in the centre pecking order. Imagine the space a ball carrying brute like billy would create for a wizard like Eastmond. They both have the skill sets to release those outside them and could, potentially, compliment each other excellently. Long term I see Eastmond and billy fighting for the 12 shirt and manu and Tomkins for the 13.

  8. I have to agree with RuckingGray and say that I would give Banahan another shot in the whits shirt. For a man of his size the pace he has is unreal and, being a saracens supporter, having watched Banahan take on 3 tacklers and keep moving with then swinging off was pretty scary. With Tuilagi out for the autumn games it might not be a bad shout to get Banahan down the training ground with England and have Bath play him at 13 (Biggs back on the wing) for a few games to iron out the creases.

    Failing that I think it will be a foot race between Tomkins and Eastmond but out of those it would be Tomkins for me.

    12 = Twelvetrees = Simples

  9. The thought of Twelvetrees/Daly combo made me a little excited, but I want to suggest an even wilder card: George Lowe at 13. He’s coming into some lovely form for Harlequins, especially defensively. He would link really well if Brown is picked at 15 (which he should be!).

  10. I would go with 12t` any day, he should have been in team for a while now, England`s back display came last year when he played against Scotland.

    Outside him e need raw speed, I would go with Daly, but it won`t happen, although Eastman would be the second choice.

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