Fitting three into two - the England centre dilemma
March 27, 2014
Does Stuart Lancaster attempt to fit all three into the side or go for two? © PA Photos
For England, so many positives came from a Six Nations that was previously seen by many as a championship too soon. Mike Brown was outstanding and left all competitors in his wake and can now rightly claim to be one of the best fullbacks in the world. But, for me, the interesting focus has been on England's midfield.
At the turn of the New Year we had an interesting situation. Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi had hardly played any rugby, Billy Twelvetrees had misfired during the autumn internationals and Luther Burrell had not been given a chance despite playing consistently well for Northampton. What a difference a few months can make. This is my opinion, but Barritt has now been left in the wake of the other three and fills in when injury or circumstance allows. The other three have a gladiatorial battle on their hands to get into the Test line up for New Zealand in the summer.
Individually, Twelvetrees is in the side to add something different to the other two. Equally at home at fly-half, he has the ability, as shown in Gloucester colours, to open up defences with an array of passing and kicking skills. By putting him next to Owen Farrell - or maybe George Ford - Lancaster is hoping to lighten the decision-making load on his fly-half. Two playmakers can run a team's attack so much more effectively than one alone. Twelvetrees played well in the recent Six Nations but for me he is not making as many of the crucial plays and decisions as we would like to see. He is a big unit and can mix it with the biggest of centres but he has had to use his size more than I would want to see compared to his distribution. Let the grossly oversized options available to England at 13 do the physical stuff.
Tuilagi is undoubtedly one of the biggest physical threats in the world game. Powerful up top (he benches close to 200kg, or he did prior to his recent injury), his legs are just enormous. Try to tackle him high and he will fend you off, go low, and he has the ability to lean into the tackle and use his weight and power to bounce you off. Your choice. He has to be involved in the England 23 somewhere and probably the starting 15. He can produce moments that change games and England need a weapon like that going into a huge 2015. He scares teams and anyone who can scare New Zealand and South Africa is worth their weight in gold - imagine the value of Manu in gold!!
Burrell, the shining young star who caught so much attention during the Six Nations. A try on his debut against France, he progressed through each game and arguably had his best games against the likes of Davies, Roberts, O'Driscoll and D'Arcy. Not a bad effort. At 6"4'and nearly 110kg, this guy can shift.
Manu Tuilagi caused the All Blacks all sorts of difficulty in 2012 © PA Photos
Arriving at Northampton when I was at the club, he was raw. Power was his game and most people knew what was coming. What he has done in a very short space of time working with Jim Mallinder, Paul Grayson and now Alex King has added a huge amount to his game. Think back to Brown's try against Italy - Burrell took the ball with nothing on, made a great carry, getting his team way past the gain line.
A couple of years ago, he would have played through the floor and the breakdown. The offload that followed a couple of weeks back was a mark of how far he has come. A quick shift of the ball in hand and the ability, under huge pressure to get the ball away before being hit by a second defender is an impressive trait.
The tour to New Zealand provides a huge test for a young England side and against a team like the All Blacks you need an ability to stretch their defence. They need a decision maker in the side. Twelvetrees is the first name that comes to mind to fill that role but I think Burrell can do the same and imagine the threat from a Burrell/Tuilagi partnership; it's going to make you sweat if you are the opposition.
Burrell is likely to switch back to inside centre this weekend when Northampton face Leicester with Tuilagi at outside. Matching the two could be the answer for the summer. Alternatively, have a young whippet on one wing - I think Nowell did brilliantly in the Six Nations - and put Tuilagi on the other. Lancaster has several different variables open to him. It is exactly what a coach wants but it doesn't make deciding on the best partnership any easier and nor does New Zealand provide a simple environment to develop the recipe.
England's midfield now has genuine options and seems to be heading in a positive direction, something it lacked over the past couple of seasons. It is exciting times heading into 2015 and Twelvetrees, Burrell and Tuilagi could have a large part to play in where the small, gold trophy ends up.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd