As minds turn to the World Cup and the make-up of England's squad, inside centre Ollie Devoto put his name in the frame with a fine performance for Bath against Newcastle on Friday evening.
Ollie Devoto is only 21, but it already feels as though he has been waiting in the wings for a fair while. Strangely, that feels slightly frustrating. The Bath back is comfortably talented enough to be a star attraction on centre stage.
Tall and athletic, Devoto carries himself in a similar manner to Sam Burgess. However, he has spent a large portion of this season watching on as Mike Ford’s high-profile league convert learns the ropes in midfield.
While the pair possess comparable physiques and posture, the parallels run out quickly after that. Devoto is far more effective in every facet of insude centre play from offloading to tackling. Frankly, he consistently pulls off things we hoped – perhaps unfairly – Burgess would be able to do straightaway.
One tale sums up Devoto’s current situation well. Last summer, Henry Slade turned out an excellent performance during England’s 39-29 loss to the Barbarians at Twickenham. It was a display that launched him into the public eye and foreshadowed the current campaign, in which he has been superb.
After 18 minutes of that game though, the playmaker for the Exeter Chiefs went off to get a cut close to his eye attended to. Devoto took the field as a blood replacement. Five minutes later, he manufactured a try for Charlie Sharples with a sumptuous grubber before leaving the field again. Unfussy, unheralded.
As the tournament comes closer, talk of potential World Cup ‘bolters’ is rife. The consensus seems to be that Slade will be a shoo-in to England’s squad. That is completely fair. On Friday evening against Newcastle Falcons though, Devoto stepped out of the shadows and into contention.
With Burgess put in an extremely promising shift in the back row, he had a part to play in all four Bath tries to help fell Falcons 29-19. Here is a closer look at his outstanding exploits.
Try number one: Piling under the posts
On the face of it, this score is about as route one as they come. Certainly, there is not a great deal of mystery about a strong midfield carry from a scrum via No 8 Leroy Houston and fly-half George Ford. But so much of Bath’s approach is based on forcing the defence to make decisions.
From the way their backline sets up at the set-piece, Newcastle are immediately put in a quandary:
Jonathan Joseph is also in this second wave, so Falcons are understandably wary and mindful that Devoto could be a decoy. Unfortunately for them, he is not and takes an in-to-out angle off Ford before pumping his legs and bursting through the tackle of Adam Powell as Juan Pablo Socino steps in:
Scrum-half Ruki Tipuna scrambles back, but is no match for Devoto’s power.
Try number two: Dirty work
A gorgeous cut-out pass from Joseph understandably took the attention for Semesa Rokoduguni‘s try:
For Devoto’s subtle but vital involvement, we need to rewind a couple of phases:
First, Devoto offers himself alongside Matt Banahan as a runner from the lineout. As we have just seen, he is tenacious and strong enough to be a viable gain-line option:
As it happens, Peter Stringer sends up Banhan instead. This means Devoto must work to make sure his side get quick ruck ball.
He slows his leg speed to get behind the carrier and therefore to the back foot of the ruck that is about to form:
With Newcastle openside flanker Mark Wilson, who is effective over the ball, hovering for a turnover, Devoto identifies the threat and looks to nullify it by latching on while his forwards, led by hooker Ross Batty, charge around:
As Burgess joins the breakdown, Wilson is carted off his feet and therefore out of the game:
Stringer can move it onto skipper Francois Louw and the hosts are stretched to breaking point.
Try number three: Sleight of hand
From grunt to guile, and a lovely pass to put Watson in for Bath’s third on the stroke of half-time to cancel out Newcastle’s brief lead:
Once more, Bath break through from a strike move. Once more, some rugby league-style ‘screening’ is in play. This time though, Devoto is the man to deliver the killer pass.
Again, it is important to look at the initial set-up, which sees a sort of x-shape drawn by the running lines of Burgess and Rokoduguni. Burgess comes from out to in and Rokoduguni fades from in to out behind that.
Ford misses them both, passing behind Burgess and in front of Rokoduguni to Devoto:
Importantly, Burgess continues on his line, colliding with a Newcastle defender to bar him from coming across.
This gives Devoto space to direct another slice movement, Joseph fading behind Watson, who storms in on a slicing angle. Falcons outside centre Powell is isolated and wary of Joseph in the wider channel.
He tip-toes out and disconnects from Socino to create a hole (as shown by the dotted black line) that Watson takes:
Devoto’s rapid dummy – or pump-fake, to borrow a term from American football – draws Socino brilliantly before a sympathetic pop sets Watson away. It is work another look from a clearer angle:
Try number four: Momentum-maker
Banahan went over to seal Bath’s bonus point on the back of a lovely movement:
This was trademark Bath, but the West Country side are only at their best when there is directness to complement deception.
Again, we can identify an integral Devoto intervention two phases earlier. Watson’s clean break has put Bath on the front foot, but support was slightly slow in arriving.
The attack in danger of stagnating somewhat, this show-and-shunt kept the visitors on the front foot:
Notice how Devoto carries in one hand. holding the ball away from the tackler. Clearly, he is looking to execute an offload:
A thoroughly modern player, Devoto here shows a grasp of the skills made famous by Sonny Bill Williams. And he has previous. This gorgeous cat-flap led to a try for Kyle Eastmond against Harlequins earlier in the season:
England’s Six Nations underlined that, in Joseph, Lancaster has a 13 capable of penetrating the world’s best defences. Still though, question marks remain at 12.
Devoto would be a surprise inclusion in the World Cup squad, but his almost uniquely rounded skill-set make him so tempting. Watch this space.
Thanks to BT Sport and Premiership Rugby for the match footage. You can purchase tickets to the Aviva Premiership final at Twickenham here.