Youngsters at the centre of attention

Ashley Beck

For the last ten years the home nations have struggled to produce many world class inside centres. Only Jamie Roberts (in 2009) has really set down an international marker to show the rest of the world that there is talent in this position within the British Isles.

Many have come and gone over the years, most notably in Scotland and England. Scotland have tried the likes of Graeme Morrison, Rob Dewey, Andy Henderson and even Sean Lamont in the lynchpin position. Frank Hadden and Andy Robinson preferred a bigger ball-carrying 12, similar to Roberts, but all failed in the passing aspect of the position where Roberts has found the correct balance of brawn and brain. In England certain names crop up such as Shontayne Hape, Riki Flutey, Jamie Noone and Olly Barkley but again none have set the world alight. Flutey was a strong all-round centre who could offer a lot but being so injury prone and being capped at the age of 28 he wasn’t going to be around for very long.

In Wales and Ireland there haven’t been many changes. Roberts has been the go-to-guy in Red and in Ireland Gordon D’Arcy has been the man who has dominated the position.
He has been a shining light for Ireland for many years and around 2006 and 2007 was one of the top performers in Europe. His partnership with Brian O’Driscoll has been set in stone for club and country for many years – but did he ever make a real impact on the global stage?

So who stands in these positions for each of the four nations now? And who is the person to play in the pivotal role in the future?

With the World Cup a year away the number 12 position has suddenly become a very competitive and prosperous position within the home nations.

In Scotland, Matt Scott is the man to answer the midfield question. He came of age in the Italy match in last year’s Six Nations and has cemented his place since with impressive performances, notably against South Africa and Italy. Scott has gone from playing for Scottish club side Currie at the start of 2011 to a nailed-on selection in the Scottish backline in just a year and a half, and Warren Gatland even claimed that he was very close to calling him out to Australia as injury cover for the Lions.

The man he chose instead was Billy Twelvetrees. Twelvetrees may not have been in the form of his life over the autumn or even the start of this year’s championship but he is the man England have been looking for since losing Will Greenwood. He carries powerfully, putting his team on the front foot, and can distribute with precision and speed. He can also kick and slot into the first-receiver position if needed – he is the most complete centre that England has seen for some time. Luther Burrell is hot on his heels after an impressive opening tournament but I believe Twelvetrees offers more of an all-round game than Burrell.

In Ireland D’Arcy may still be in control of the jersey but Joe Schmidt should be looking to Luke Marshall as his future 12. Marshall made his debut in remarkable fashion in the loss to Scotland last year and announced his arrival with some beautiful lines in attack and a solid defence. He’s been hampered down by injury but the future certainly looks bright for him.

In Wales all the talk has been about Scott Williams and rightly so – Williams has been brilliant for Llanelli and deserves the plaudits he is receiving. He always made an impact from the bench over the last couple of years, but when given the start he had struggled. That is why I see Ashley Beck as the future prospect for Wales at 12. His first start against Australia in the summer of 2012 is testament to this and he performed admirably. He has yet to disappoint in a Wales jersey but his opportunities have been drastically limited by injuries. It’s a shame to realise how far Beck would have progressed had he not been so unlucky with injuries.

Twelvetrees, Scott, Marshall, Beck. These are the four names that we will be hearing more and more over the coming years and it’s an exciting prospect.

By Finlay MacLeod

25 thoughts on “Youngsters at the centre of attention

  1. Twelvetrees should be the man England look to for the inside centre, but is there a chance that both he and Burrell could be displaced by the returns of Barritt and Tuilagi? Lancaster has shown that he’s willing to make changes, but would he find it hard to not select those players? Also, with all of the home nations, could a bigger concern be a lack of strength in depth, looking to the future?

    1. Not sure what makes you think Barritt will get a return? He has been fit all 6 nations and SL has clearly preferred Twelvetrees and Burrell, to great effect I would add!

      I can’t see Barritt being any more than reliable emergency cover moving forward. Twelvtrees is definitely the future for England at 12, the most all round centre we’ve had for years. Outside him we need someone with the brawn to draw defenders and make line breaks, enter Manu.

      On the other nations, I think Matt Scott looks very good, and D’arcy obviously needs replacing soon. But why are Wales looking for the next 12? Roberts is only 27 years old, so he has years left in him! 2019 probably isn’t completely out of the question for him, and 2017 Lions tour will certainly be in his sights.

    2. Agree with Jacob, England’s selection and gameplan has moved beyond Barritt. Even when 36 was a doubt for the Italy game it was Eastmond that stayed with the squad as cover.

      If England did lock down the 9, 10, and 12 shirts (barring injury or exceptional form gain/loss) and keep the combination together until 2015 I can’t say it’s a bad decision. However ….. with Burrell’s offloading ability (combined with his own running lines and power) I can see that he could be an excellent man to have inside Tuilagi. Tuilagi getting on the end of Burrell offloads with the gain line already breached could cause havoc. If Burrell does get the opportunity to play 12 I’ll be excited to see what he can do in partnership with Manu.

      Be nice to see a bit more of Eastmond as well (as a super sub probably), very unlucky not to feature since Argentina.

      1. I personally don’t like the idea of Burrell/Tuilagi, sounds too boshy for me, and without Twelvetrees’ playmaking who knows how Farrell will play. The playmaking axis of Care/Farrell/Twelvetrees has been promising and deserves more time together.
        I’d be delighted if I turned out to be wrong (just like I was with Brown and Marler) but as our most threatening attacker in a blunt back line last year; I think Tuilagi has enough credit in the bank to finally get his chance to see what he can do outside Twelvetrees. Burrell is a great player that can slot into both 12 and 13, but only with the right player with him. He worked well outside Twelvetrees but I’d like to see him tested with a more agile fleet-footed player, Eastmond/Burrell and Burrell/Daly are the two partnerships that spring to mind first. Although the latter would require Dai Young to give Daly proper game time in his favoured position, I’d hate to see him become the next Mat Tait.

        1. I think Farrell is proving at Saracens (inside Barritt) that his attacking game is not based on Twelvetrees being outside him. Also, Burrell is far more than just a bosher, I do think he can offer a lot in terms of distribution.

          In saying all that, completely agree that moving forward we need to give Care-Farrell-Twelvetrees-Tuilagi some game time together.

          Preferably with a back three of Wade, Yarde and Brown.

        2. Love the idea of Burrell/Daly… Guile, pace, strength and offloading ability. Plus a kicking game at 13 appeals more to me than one at 12. Though any excuse to harp on about how brilliant I think Daly would be in the centres.

        3. I’m not convinced it’s 36 that’s helped Farrell’s game along, he was playing inside him in the Autumn and wasn’t great. I see playing outside Care rather than Dickson as the key factor (how many clips have we seen with all the defenders watching Care buying Farrell some time, never happens with Dickson and all eyes are on Farrell).

          My question mark over 36 & Manu is how easily 36’s passing game seems to be shut down. When the 13 channel is rushed 36 is often looking up for an option outside, taking a few steps, realising nothing is on and then turning back inside and carrying to the gain line. 36 didn’t through a lot of great balls for Burrell to run onto so I’m not so sure he’s going to be the best guy to get Manu into the game.

          I think Burrell created more than 36, his running lines, ability to hold up and wait for support runners, passing and offloading especially looked excellent to me. All from a guy being played out of position who is only in his first ‘real’ season of top flight rugby! I have a hunch that it’s going to be Burrell and not 36 who is more effective at getting Manu into the game. Didn’t expect to be saying this as I’ve been a fan of 36 for a long time, but I was really impressed by Burrell!

          The other combinations you mention are enticing prospects to see at some point in the future as well!

          1. I agree with you Matt. For me 12Ts, despite improving slightly, is not England’s answer at 12

            Whilst his defence appears to have been shored up somewhat (after some shockers), aside from the one excellent chip through, I thought his attacking game was mediocre.

            For a guy who is meant to be a second playmaker, he threw some awful passes and his timing seems to be poor.

            To me, he seems to play to a set plan rather then playing what’s in front of him – and if the set plan is rumbled then he gets closed down very easily.

            Also, for a big guy, he is doesn’t make much of an impact when he runs at defenders.

            I’d like to see Burrell at inside centre. He was excellent this 6 Nations – for once an English centre who can run an intelligent line with power, pace and timing.

            His distribution is better than people on this thread seem to believe. A combo of him and Tuilagi would be a frightening sight for any defence.

            1. I’m in agreement on the 36 matter. Don’t think he made any line breaks in the 6N, and although there were some good examples of distribution, there were also a couple of howlers. Seems to me he has a habit of being in space, but passing the ball too early and allowing defenders to drift and cover the outside men.

              I don’t think he is dreadful, but I think there are alternatives that offer more of an attacking threat (Burrell, Eastmond)

          2. That’s a very fair observation regarding Farrell, one I fInd myself agreeing with in fact. Care’s tempo and unpredictability have given Farrell more room to actually do the creative fly half stuff that he hasn’t done much prior to this 6N.
            But regarding Burrell, I know he’s more than just a bosher. He’s faster than Manu, runs better support lines than Manu and offloads more than Manu, but he hasn’t zipped many killer passes to the backs outside him. In fact a miss pass to Nowell nearly cost us a try against Italy. I don’t think his “OK” distribution is enough to supplant Twelvetrees ability to play first receiver, at least not yet.

            Like I’ve said, I’d love to be proved wrong, Burrell hitting a drifting defender’s inside shoulder and offloading to Manu to devastate behind an already fractured defensive line, on the surface it sounds like a great midfield attacking plan. But would it bring Wade, Yarde and Brown into the game as much as they deserve?
            Not much of this really matters though as looking at the AP table it is clear that Twelvetrees will be available for all three NZ tests, whereas it’s likely we’ll be without one of Burrell or Manu for the first test (possibly both).
            If he doesn’t perform in NZ, bring in Burrell. It’s just we’ve had to wait a long time to see what Twelvetrees and Manu can do, if the former can just flick a few more passes like the one to May vs Scotland then I think he should do a pretty good job of helping Manu get us on the front foot.

            1. To make it work (recognising that neither centre is going to be carving defences open with Cooperesque passes) we would need to build a game plan to work around it.

              With Care’s speed and tempo I think we could become an excellent round the corner team. Any lack of numbers around the ruck fringes and Care is off (Vunipola also excellent at going through the middle if he spots a lack of numbers), one out you’ve got Vunipola, Woodshaw and the second rows who can all carry, pass and offload to link, then get Farrell a bit wider to have the Yardes, Browns and Wades picking a line off. We would have options to attack narrow, through the middle and wide, all done over the gain line. Think it could be pretty difficult to defend against.

              It’s possibly a style of play that may suit Ford more than Farrell, but think we’ve seen enough progress from Farrell to suggest he could play it effectively.

  2. No mention of Marshall’s continued proneness to concussions? One more bad one could end his professional career. It’s even possible that he might have to retire before D’Arcy.

    There aren’t any stand out candidates just yet. Most of them, such as Reid and Olding, are yet to fully break through at club level, and others, such as Downey, aren’t good enough to cut it at the highest level. McFadden could end up being used as a stop gap until the true candidate presents itself.

  3. Ryan Mills has had a couple of injury seasons but I’ve had high hopes for him for a few years. Skilled enough to play 10 but big enough to handle himself in the centres. He’s off to Worcs so we won’t see him the AP next season but beyond the 3 in the squad, I think he’s the most promising.

    Any other decent youngsters out there? Sam Hill looks a bit Jamie Noon to me

  4. I’ve not been convinced yet by Beck. I’ve seen some good stuff from him but his defence is dubious, criminal for an inside centre, especially one who may have Priestland inside him. Corey Allan looks a more likely long term prospect as a JD understudy to me.

  5. Great article, sounds as if the writer might have some experience in the middle of the park himself. Luke Marshall: top bloke, needs a beard though. Only then can he look to replace the never-ageing D’arcy. Wales have tried Beck a couple of times and he has never really looked comfortable making the transition from the ospreys shirt to that of his country. Granted, Scott Williams hasn’t set the world alight when he’s started, but he has shown glimpses of stuff Ashley Beck could never have brought to the party, particularly the spectacular solo try against England.

  6. I rate twelvetrees really highly, though agree that he’s been in poor form. Matt Scott has been class for Scotland and still has loads of room to grow. Look out for his little brother coming through the ranks at hooker, he’s also got a lot going for him!

  7. Dunbar plays 12 too and he was one of the few to stand out for scotland, excellent prospect I’d say. Both him and Scott are 23 so both only young uns.

  8. Moving forward a few more years England have a great prospect in Nick Tomkins at 12. He was outstanding in the U20 6 Nations for England.

  9. Have to say that Olly Devoto at Bath has really impressed me this season. Presumably he remains a little way down the pecking order, but he does appear to have a very solid all round game, with good hands and quick feet.

  10. Can’t say I am a huge fan of Twelvetrees at all. Decent-ish player going forward but in my opinion, defensively weak (e.g. Autumn internationals against Aus). As for Scott, hopefully he stays in Edinburgh and doesn’t join the ever increasing number of players going South/France (Could we have a similar dilemma to that of the welsh exodus soon?). As for Williams, I think Wales will stick with him for a while yet with Beck not likely to get a look in as Williams is a reliable player. Fan of Luke Marshall, think he will do well in the 12 shirt. For Scotland and Wales the problem lies more so in the number 10 shirt rather than the 12 shirt in my opinion.

    1. Because getting bumped once by another 100kg+ player makes you useless. He was basically our top tackler in the backline every game in the 6 nations, he was leading the defence, and he was putting huge pressure on the opposition.

  11. I think england have some real strength in depth now and will be interesting to see who fits game plan best. Devoto is a real prospect and someone SL should bring into Saxons.

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