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.
That 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