With more mixing and matching in the autumn, this debate on England's midfield options is as relevant now as it was when published in Rugby World last month
BALANCE. IT’S a word used often in every-day life: work-life balance, balanced diet, balance of power. In sports teams, balance is key too. Simply throwing the most talented players together is not always the best course of action. There needs to be a mix of skills and for the players chosen to complement each other.
Getting the right balance in England‘s centres has long been a challenge for the national coaches. Will Greenwood and Mike Tindall provided the perfect yin-yang centre pairing when England ruled world rugby in 2003, but since they last started a Test together in March 2004 no duo has got comfortable in the white 12 and 13 jerseys. Numerous players have been tried – 26, to be exact, have started in either of the centre positions – but finding a settled partnership has proved elusive.
The sound of the clock ticking down to next year’s World Cup is surely echoing loudly in head coach Stuart Lancaster’s ears and nailing down a midfield pairing will be at the top of his list of priorities. We thought we’d offer a helping hand by analysing the contenders…
In terms of danger men, there are few that come close to Manu Tuilagi. Yes, his distribution has been called into question but when you continually break the gain-line and put defenders on their backsides you don’t always need to pass; you can make it across the whitewash on your own. He scored five tries in nine Aviva Premiership games last term – a better return than any of his midfield rivals.
There’s no doubt passing is an area of his game that needs work, but he has already shown improvement in recent years. He used to hold onto the ball like a toddler clinging to their favourite cuddly toy but these days he does at least look to offload when going into contact, even though the accuracy when he releases the ball can be wayward.
If Tuilagi needs inspiration he need only look at Ma’a Nonu. The All Blacks centre was once seen as a battering ram but now has a much more rounded game, upping his passing and even his kicking skills. The latter might be a little much to ask of Tuilagi, for now at least!
At the other end of the attacking spectrum is Kyle Eastmond. The Bath man chooses to go round rather than through defenders, thanks to his low centre of gravity and footwork that Michael Flatley would be proud of. The fact he’s more Tom Cruise than Chris Hemsworth means he’s harder for the big guys to bring down too; they have to get low or risk being pinged for a high tackle.
What’s most impressive about Eastmond, however, is his reading of the game. He is happy to come in at first receiver or position himself in a wider channel, spotting opportunities and backing himself to take them. Perhaps it’s the fact that his formative years were spent in rugby league that mean he’s comfortable taking risks, while many union academy graduates have been taught to follow a prescribed formula. Whatever it is, he’s been the form English centre this season and has skills – physical and mental – that others simply cannot match. He’s not selfish either, as happy creating a try as scoring one.
Eastmond’s centre partner at Bath, Jonathan Joseph, can testify to that, often finding himself on the right end of a scoring offload. Mike Catt has long been a fan of Joseph, coaching him at London Irish. The 23-year-old is a silky runner with pace and soft hands, while he also wins praise from Catt for his low error count.
Luther Burrell is probably the most rounded contender. Big, strong and physical, he doesn’t quite have the same destructive impact as Tuilagi with ball in hand – few in the world game do – but he is still a handful for defenders to deal with.
His distribution is underrated, mainly because he hasn’t had the chance to play at 12 for England, the position he fills so successfully at Northampton. He runs great support lines and should reap the benefits if played in tandem with Tuilagi or Eastmond, as they would with Burrell’s offloading game.
None of the players discussed are renowned for having a varied kicking game. They can do it if necessary but none tend to get huge distance when they put boot to ball or mix things up with the odd chip or grubber.
Eastmond might be a playmaker with his hands but Lancaster has more often turned to Billy Twelvetrees as a more traditional second five-eighth for his kicking ability. On paper the Gloucester man appears the perfect inside-centre; in reality his inconsistent performances mean you never know what you’re going to get and neither do those playing alongside him. He’s been given more than his fair share of chances and has failed to regularly deliver, so he should be dispensed with before the World Cup.
When it comes to this type of player, Henry Slade is the best long-term selection. The fly-half, 21, has been playing at 13 for Exeter and the extra time on the ball allows him to show the variety in his game. It’s early in his career but he has great hands and a cultured left foot.
England have better options to start in midfield at RWC 2015, but Slade is a good squad choice given his ability to play fly-half, centre and full-back. Bringing him into the England environment means he can get to grips with the game plan and come 2019 he is sure to be a crucial member of the team.
The other option that allows England to have a kicking game at 12 is to play Owen Farrell there with George Ford at fly-half. The flair of Ford is balanced by the pragmatism of Farrell, who also delivers on the goalkicking and defence fronts, although it didn’t prove successful against Samoa in November.
Brad Barritt may not have been given any column inches in the attack analysis but he tops the charts in defence. A long-time favourite of Lancaster’s, Barritt’s solidity and reliability without the ball has stood out for both England and Saracens.
When Lancaster set about repairing England’s damaged reputation in 2012, Barritt was the perfect man to build the team’s defence around. He has a 97% tackle success rate in the league so far this season – a statistic that none of his rivals come close to – and there is no questioning his commitment and professionalism. But he’s even less likely to pass the ball than Tuilagi and lacks either the power or the footwork to put opposition defences in much of a quandary.
As for Eastmond’s 40-minute nightmare in Hamilton in June, that should be considered a blip, the defensive blunders more of a team issue than an individual one. After all, two weeks earlier he stood firm in the face of the All Blacks attack – his ability to get low in the tackle allowing him to heave down bigger men.
Defence shouldn’t be seen as a weakness of either Eastmond or Joseph. The Bath pair’s tackle percentages were in the mid to late 80s for the first six league games of this season.
Tuilagi loves to make a big hit and has a tendency to rush out of the defensive line to do just that. It’s a trait that did Brian O’Driscoll little harm during his 15-year Test career, although the Irishman was arguably more adept at reading game situations than the younger man. O’Driscoll would risk doing it to snuff out an attack, Tuilagi likes imposing himself physically and doesn’t always time such charges effectively.
A good use of his time while he’s sidelined with a groin injury would be video analysis: take match situations and look at when to stay in the defensive line and when to bolt forward. Better decision-making would help him and his team-mates.
So who to pick? It comes back to that question of balance. Given the physicality of modern-day Test rugby, there needs to be a big, powerful player in midfield. Play two of this type, however, and the back-line’s creativity is limited. Pick two playmakers and you risk being outmuscled. The solution is to have a combination of the two: a clever footballer allied with brute force.
In England terms, nobody provides the latter better than Tuilagi. Yes, he has flaws but they are heavily outweighed by the attacking threat he offers. Even the All Blacks struggle to contain the 17st 8lb centre – he almost single-handedly turned the 2012 Test at Twickenham in England’s favour.
As for a player to prise open defences in a subtler manner, Eastmond can do that. With so many teams following the ‘bigger is better’ route, picking a player who doesn’t fit the stereotype is a shrewd move. When the man himself doesn’t know what he’s going to do until the last moment, how can a defender plan for it?
An Eastmond-Tuilagi 12-13 combination is lacking in the kicking department, but it is a pairing that will worry opponents. Too often in the past ten years England have resorted to ‘defence is the best form of attack’; now is the time to turn that philosophy on its head.
If everyone is fit, Eastmond and Tuilagi should start against Fiji next September, with Burrell on the bench. That combination can deliver success at RWC 2015. It has the right balance.
This article appeared in the December 2014 edition of Rugby World magazine. Click here for the latest subscription offers.