After a strong if ultimately disappointing Autumn International series for England the one burgeoning question still remains who should be playing in the centres.
Whilst the entire back division failed to properly fire during the series, the emergence of Mike Brown as the form full-back in the country along with the impending return of Christian Wade and Marland Yarde means I am less then concerned about the back three.
Equally although I’m not entirely convinced by Owen Farrell at 10 he has shown on occasion that he has the skill-set to compete at the very top level. Equally at scrum-half although a number of the primary contenders for the starting shirt are currently mis-firing I have seen enough to feel that one of Danny Care, Ben Youngs or Lee Dickson can be England’s starting 9 come the 2015 World Cup.
It is in the centres that the main concern must lie. It has been a persistent weakness in English sides for a number of years now and although there finally seems to be a number of contenders, none have really laid down a marker to date that would suggest they could be a regular starter for England in the build-up to the World Cup.
The nearest we have to a mainstay in the midfield is Manu Tuilagi who unfortunately looks set to miss out on the Six Nations and so Stuart Lancaster will require an able deputy. Once back to full fitness it seems likely Manu Tuilagi will once again be re-instated into the team, although the questions remains whether this will be at inside centre or outside centre.
Although to date Tuilagi has been primarily deployed at 13 by both Martin Johnson and Stuart Lancaster his role in the lead-up to 2015 could well depend on who the other form centre is in the country at the time. Below I’ll take a look at the main contenders;
To date Twelvetrees has seemed the leading contender to partner Tuilagi in the centres having been heavily involved in the England team all year. His experience at fly-half makes him an excellent back-up at first or second receiver and means he has the boot to help get England out of trouble. He also has size and strength coupled with excellent distribution which all suggests he is the ideal foil for the England centres.
Unfortunately his international career to date has stuttered somewhat with a number of low-key performances that have somewhat failed to live up to expectation. That said, his performances in England’s latter games this Autumn suggest he may be getting accustomed to playing for England and could well have a future at 12.
Barritt is best described as solid if unspectacular. He has proved to be a key defensive lynch-pin in the England midfield and is never afraid of sticking his head where it hurts for England. Unfortunately he seems to somewhat lack the spark that will help light up England’s attack and see them compete with the Southern Hemispheres big boys.
For me selecting Barritt suggests an overly cautious approach by Stuart Lancaster and his coaching team and indicates an uneasiness at attempting to remove their teams attacking shackles. He does however remain a reliable back-up who is an excellent option to bring in to shore up a creaking defensive line.
Despite never having pulled on the Red Rose jersey there has been a huge groundswell of support to give Luther Burrell his chance with England. The hard running centre has been in excellent form for high-flying Northampton Saints so far this season and looks to have the skills-set to compete at the very highest level.
Unfortunately Burrell’s lack of international experience will begin to count against him the closer we get to the World Cup. The other concern is that his style of play is very similar to that of Manu Tuilagi and if the pair were played together they could make England’s attack very one dimensional although I imagine the two of them would be enough to scare most other centres.
Saracens dual-coder Joel Tomkins was widely hailed as the man to unleash England’s back three having helped Sarries open up in attack with his off-loading game. Unfortunately he was unable to translate this onto the international stage this Autumn.
Despite his defensive prowess Tomkins ultimately failed to live up to the hype and must now show he is still a valid contender at Saracens before the start of the Six Nations. For now though reverting to Tomkins again would seem a sideways step by Lancaster.
Jonny May represents everything that England have so far failed to show in midfield. He is an exciting runner with pace to burn and a willingness to take on his opposite number. He has been in excellent form for Gloucester so far this season and looks set to have the makings of a truly top class player.
The selection of May however would represent a huge shift away from Lancaster’s relatively conservative approach to date. Concerns may also remain over his defensive abilities but given the current malaise England’s attack is currently suffering from he seems worth a punt.
It seems like no time at all since Joseph was being hailed as the future of England’s midfield. Injuries and the emergence of other contenders have seen him slip down the pecking order but his regular appearances for a strong Bath side must surely be putting him firmly on Stuart Lancaster’s radar.
If Joseph can continue to string together games and performances for Bath on a regular basis he must be considered for a place in the England ranks. At just 22 he has plenty of time to continue to develop despite seemingly having been around forever.
The forgotten man of English rugby is still just 27 years old and has all the necessary experience to be a key member of Stuart Lancaster’s World Cup squad. His 38 test caps would be a welcome boost to a woefully inexperienced England back division so close the World Cup.
To be strongly considered he must be able to prove his fitness throughout the season for Leicester Tigers, but if he can do that then he surely must be given his opportunity having shown sparks of his old form for Richard Cockerill’s men at the tail-end of last season.
Despite rumblings that he may be angling for a return to Rugby League, Kyle Eastmond still looks to be one of the most exciting midfield prospects in the country. He was a key man in England’s successful summer tour of Argentina and has continued his good form for Bath so far this season.
Concerns remain over his size and defensive attributes but what nobody can doubt is his ability ball-in-hand. Very few players have his ability to run with the ball and change direction at pace. He also has a good range of distribution and looks to be developing other sides to his game as well.
Whilst it is great for Lancaster to have such a range of options to select from the issue now is that he must settle on one for each position and stick with his pairing despite potential dips in form. If he continues to chop and change England will find themselves heading into the World Cup with an unfamiliar partnership who could fail to click.
Who would you put in the centres for England?