The midfield of Sam Burgess and Henry Slade will have caused Stuart Lancaster a selection headache against France on Saturday.
Two debutants undertaking a high-stakes audition at Twickenham. Two centres with entirely different attributes who had taken contrasting paths to their first Test cap – one a code-hopping superstar, the other a precocious talent graduating from an outstanding stint in representative age-group action.
It was suggested that Sam Burgess and Henry Slade were playing for a single place in Stuart Lancaster’s 31-strong Rugby World Cup squad. However, alongside the excellent Alex Goode at full-back, both players made a compelling case for involvement.
Though England’s forwards were uncharacteristically overrun by a gnarled France pack, Burgess and Slade gave eye-catching performances in the backline. Here is a run-down of how they combined in midfield.
Defence – stepping in and sliding off
A big reason Lancaster has been so keen on bringing in Burgess is the big-game temperament and innate charisma he demonstrated in league – an intangible ability to inspire teammates and grasp the occasion, hauling momentum back to his side.
Just two minutes into Saturday evening’s installment of Le Crunch, there was evidence that this has translated to union:
Twickenham erupted at the sight of France skipper Dimitri Szarzewski being man-handled. At any level, such a robust, domineering tackle lifts confidence across the entire team.
But this is not an isolated piece of individual brilliance. It is a product of England’s organisation and the mutual understanding between their centres.
Watch this snapshot of the previous phase as Slade calls over his forwards from the blindside to fill in around the breakdown on the openside:
When they are in position taking care of the fringes, Slade and Burgess can charge off the gain-line and pick up France’s midfield runners as Morgan Parra finds half-back ally Francois Trinh-Duc:
Burgess identifies Szarzewski as the recipient of Trinh-Duc’s pass and hits the hooker around the sternum, stalling the attack drastically:
Because the collision is rather upright, Slade can latch onto the contact area and drive Burgess further towards the France line:
The visitors backpedal to recycle possession, but the end result is that they have static ball around eight metres behind the gain-line:
France did manage to manoeuvre the England defence nicely from here though. A neat chip behind Burgess manufactured an opportunity on the right as the Bath Rugby man was beaten on the turn:
Slade does not have the stature nor the power of Burgess. However, he remains a highly effective, intelligent defender.
Watch here as he is part of an England drift that deals with a sweeping France attack:
First, Slade and Calum Clark press up as Trinh-Duc catches Parra’s pass:
Realising that Trinh-Duc is going behind his first wave of support runners to blindside wing Brice Dulin, they then curve round to the left to shut off the space:
As Dulin opts to kick, England have all bases covered. Remi Lamerat has cut a line back infield, but Slade and Farrell are waiting for him.
Goode has stepped in to take Dulin and Jonny May is already turned to field the grubber while wary of Sofiane Guituone outside him:
Outside centre is not an easy place to defence, but Slade often makes it look fairly straightforward.
Burgess is more of an abrasive presence, and another astute read saw him bury Alexandre Dumoulin later in the first half.
Despite a ten-minute spell in the sin bin – which we will come onto – the 26 year-old ended up at the summit of England’s tackle-count charts. He looked for work, as this second-half effort epitomised:
Now, though Geoff Parling and Farrell make decent contact on Uini Atonio here, the hefty tighthead is set to score before Burgess steps in.
England were down to 14 men in the wake of Clark’s yellow card, but Burgess sees the threat around the fringes from his spot in the middle of the field…
…and gets across to force the ball loose:
Such details do not get lost on Lancaster. While there are certainly technical aspects to hone, the primal desire of Burgess will have impressed him.
Two-sided attack – the ability to take on the defence either side of any given breakdown – has long been a goal of Lancaster’s. As such, he is an advocate of deploying two natural playmakers in his backline.
On Saturday night, his match-day 23 was loaded with ball-players. Farrell, Goode and Slade started, while Billy Twelvetrees and Danny Cipriani joined the fray from the bench. All have experience of playing at fly-half.
The ploy paid off handsomely early on:
We start as Ben Morgan is just about to break off England’s lineout maul. Slade is standing at inside centre:
His position means he must attend the ruck as Morgan carries. Slade does not shirk the dirty work:
Richard Wigglesworth moves the ball left for another trundle through the forwards. England are now around 25 metres in from the right touchline. There is an inviting blindside to attack.
Slade, retreating behind the ball following his breakdown assignment, has his head up and sees this:
He demands the ball from Wigglesworth and ships it onto Anthony Watson as quickly as possible. Slade is so flat to the gain-line that Trinh-Duc is invited to tackle him:
From years in the same age-group sides, the Exeter Chief knows Watson can do special things in one-on-one situations. The electric, in-to-out finish would not have surprised him.
With a distributor such as Slade in the side, England could spread the ball wide rapidly.
When they wanted to punch more narrowly though, Burgess was on hand. Watch this series of phases from the first half. First, Burgess is unleashed from a lineout:
There is a bit of a fumble and his stance is quite upright, but Burgess still attracts a couple of defenders and delivers a pristine platform beyond the gain-line thanks to neat ball presentation. Meanwhile, Slade has slipped into first receiver…
…and throws a cut-out pass to test France on the edge of the field:
Scott Spedding actually comes up nicely on the left to cover Watson on this occasion, but England kept the ball and set up something even more clever:
This would have had Mike Catt and Andy Farrell purring. It is a slick pattern. Farrell stands at first receiver with two forward runners (labelled A1 and A2) to hold the defence. He pulls it back to Slade at second receiver who has two more carriers (B1 and B2) on his left shoulder:
Communication and collective understanding needs to be pinpoint to achieve this situation. More pleasing still though would have been Slade’s decision-making.
With Parra jamming across to cover Mako Vunipola, he simply misses out his forward runners to find May:
So, within quarter of an hour England had alternated between direct and expansive play. Then came Watson’s stunning second:
Interestingly, Slade begins at first receiver, feeding Burgess:
Taking it to the line, Burgess sucks in Dumoulin and Lamerat before finding Farrell on a wrap-around:
Though Lamerat drifts off the carrier quickly, a slight delay is all May needs to slice through a gap…
..before his offload bypasses three Frenchmen and sets away Watson:
This was a training ground move executed flawlessly.
In the second half, Burgess made more headway for England with an uncomplicated carry:
This gives us a chance to examine how the centres set up. Much as he did on domestic duty last season alongside burly Sam Hill, Slade stands at inside centre and fades behind Burgess:
Again, Burgess lays a platform:
Care moves the ball right through the forwards before Farrell switches play via Geoff Parling:
Note that Slade has continued on his path, holding the French defence on the right-hand side of the ruck. At this point, it would be easy for Burgess to steam ahead and take a crash ball. Instead, he fades behind Kieran Brookes:
Parra again tries to cut off the move but Burgess’ quick transfer puts Vunipola into space after Brookes (circled) crouches to evade Farrell’s pass:
Clearly, the presence of Burgess on the gain-line thoroughly pre-occupied France.
Back in December, we analysed Burgess’ first start for Bath and how he was used effectively as a decoy runner. This weekend, plenty of space was manufactured for others. Take this phase:
England’s two-wave structure is in play once more, and Burgess takes it to the line before hitting Slade behind James Haskell:
Slade’s kick is weighted very delicately, such that the chase boxes in Spedding:
Territorial awareness – another box ticked.
Back to Burgess for now, though. Later on, Farrell perhaps should have scored straight from this scrum:
France are simply fixated on Burgess. Rory Kockott is at pains to reiterate his threat during the scrum:
Consequently, Remi Tales tiptoes towards the centre while Gael Fickou sits back on his heels. Farrell is ignored as a running threat, and gets to within five metres:
Should Lancaster hand Burgess more opportunities, this can be developed much further.
It would be unfair and inconceivable for a rookie centre pairing to deliver a mistake-free match. Sure enough, there were a couple of errors.
Burgess conceded two penalties in the space of ten seconds, receiving a yellow card from referee John Lacey after taking out Parra with ten metres of a quick-tap penalty and then failing to roll away from his own tackle on Vincent Debaty:
At full-time, Burgess spoke of the need to curb his instincts. Indeed, the sin bin could end up as a beneficial footnote to his debut.
Parra was on his 60th cap and handed Burgess a lesson in restraint. He has heeded plenty of tutorials in the past nine months and this was a far better environment to learn than during the World Cup.
Slade also fell victim to a rush of blood, taking out Parra from a Farrell restart:
He was very lucky to escape further sanction, but showed his class in the second half by correcting himself:
Positioned in backfield with Farrell, he signals to his fly half to go to the air…
…making sure to stay behind him until contact is made:
Slade then climbs to beat Louis Picamoles to the ball…
…batting it backwards for Alex Corbisiero to secure:
With Jonathan Joseph and Brad Barritt all but assured of a berth, Luther Burrell and Billy Twelvetrees must be itching for a start in Paris.
Lancaster has 80 minutes of game-time left before he must name his 31. Another version of Le Crunch in Paris signals decision-time on his prospective centres.
This weekend may have muddied the waters. But Lancaster’s headache is a happy one. At the very least, Burgess and Slade underlined the considerable value they would offer to England’s pursuit of the World Cup.