As I found myself eagerly awaiting the release of Rugby 15 (it better be good!!!!) I was having a mess about on the pretty average Rugby World Cup game from 2011. However being a pernickety student with too much time on his hands I decided to update the team to the current England side.
Having slaved away for frankly too much time I came stuck when it came to squad selection, which looked something like this:
7. Robshaw (capt)
8. Morgan/ Vunipola (depending on my mood)
10. Farrell (he had a better kicking rating than Ford, which is handy against the computer)
Bench: 16.Wilson, 17.Marler, 18.Webber, 19. Attwood, 20.Haskell, 21.Youngs, 22.Ford/ Farell (depending on who starts), 23.Watson
My obvious conundrum came in the midfield. Initially I pencilled in Tuilagi, as I feel if he can get a season under his belt injury free, he can really cause teams problems most other players can’t against the best in the world. His power is clear when it took 4 All Blacks to finally haul him down in the first test this Summer. Then I’m faced with whether Tuilagi should play at 12 or 13, both have pros and cons.
Often Tuilagi’s distribution skills have been questioned, hence possible resignations over his ability to play 12, while this also limits his ability to play 13 as he fails to bring the back 3 into the game. However, he has an excellent offloading game which at 12 can be used to great effect after battering through the defence, and releasing a pacey 13 to unlock the outside backs once he has sucked in the opposition defenders. While running from deeper at 13 Tuilagi can be an excellent decoy runner, providing a ball playing inside centre more time and space to unleash the flying wingers. Or, thinking as a front row, Tuilagi running from deep means more momentum, which equals even more damage as a battering ram. Debating aside though it seems clear that whether at 12 or 13 Tuilagi offers a lot to the England centres and where he specifically plays depends just as much on his partner, and that’s where the problems really begin. Who should that partner be?
The old impenetrable wall (or far more water-tight than it has been…)
Stuart Lancaster’s first combination when fully fit was the sizeable combination of Brad Barritt alongside Tuilagi, in the 2012 Six Nations. Now although Barritt brings excellent defensive organisation to a unit that has at times been pretty leaky in the summer, he provides the creativity of a brick layer when it comes to attack. If England are to really challenge the best in the world they need solid defence and more importantly the ability to score tries, which requires creativity from a backline, especially the midfield, since however classy your wingers are unless the men in the middle can create space it is very hard to unlock and open up the best defences. So while Barritt provides solidity if England are to really challenge they need something more.
Power and guile – the forgotten experiment
I remember being very excited by the 2012 centre paring for the Summer tour of South Africa, which although a rough diamond promised to become a polished and devastating combination of Jonathan Joseph outside Tuilagi. However, injury cut the partnership’s prospects short and we never got to see how this would progress. While Joseph went on the Summer tour to Argentina in 2013 he has only managed to make the Saxons this year with an injury plagued first season for Bath. Yet, Joseph is only 23, the same age as Tuilagi, and if given some more time, potentially the combination of Tuilagi’s power, and offloading, with Joseph’s sheer pace and agility could really cause problems to any defence. Nevertheless, this partnership is untested and would require development beyond this year’s World Cup before any real judgement could be passed, while question marks would stand over their defensive capabilities.
To provide ballast in attack and defence many have called for the combination of Luther Burrell and Tuilagi. After an impressive Six Nations, out of position, Burrell showed his ability to pick excellent running lines scything open defences, and with Tuilagi in support I’d pity any covering defender. Yet, this combination could be a little too one dimensional, with a lot of power and not enough guile, it could prove effective till the World Cup offering England plenty of go forward to release the fleet-footed back three but as a long-term solution it wouldn’t see England progress to a more expansive team.
Brains and brawn
Thus the fashion of today would see a powerful ball carrier partnered by a creative playmaker, with an armoury of skills to release the backline, and provide back up to the fly-half as a second kicker and first-receiver.
Who would this revered playmaker be though?
England have tried several: Billy Twelvetrees and Kyle Eastmond have been the most regularly used. Initially I was a big fan of Twelvetrees, powerful and a good distributor, with a solid boot, until he somewhat proved me wrong on several occasions. Unfortunately Twelvetrees lacks consistency, often being a weak link in defence as seen in the Second Test against the All Blacks this Summer or failing to take the right options carrying the ball into contact when he should pass, the kind of mistake you don’t want from a so-called playmaker.
Then there is Eastmond, who I am a huge fan of and still am, he has excellent handling skills, strength and skill, as well as brilliant pace and footwork. He stood up to the test against the All Blacks in the game at Eden Park, however come the Third Test he and Tuilagi were cut to ribbons, while being unable to do the same to their opposition. So while I think it would be a waste not to utilise Eastmond, I feel he would be an excellent impact substitute able to come on in the centres or the wing, with his footwork an excellent asset to open up tiring defences.
That still means if England were to employ the playmaker strategy they would need to look elsewhere. One option could be Owen Farrell, playing outside George Ford, as they did at Junior level for England. Farrell is more than a solid defender while his communication skills would allow him to marshal the defence. People still question Farrell’s creative nous, as almost comically demonstrated when he seemed shocked that he had dummied the French defence in the Six Nations and was past their first line of defenders. In contrast Ford has proven to be a creative spark in the Bath backline, which could mean they complement each other, particularly with Farrell’s more impressive goal kicking ability and temperament.
A completely off the wall option could be Wasps’ Elliott Daly playing outside Tuilagi. He has tremendous skills, as well as a booming boot and pace to burn, so could be a future possibility, at only 21. Nonetheless a couple more injury-free seasons are necessary for him to cement his place as Wasps’ first choice 13 and to shore up his defence. Another one to look out for could be Henry Slade, who has already donned an England shirt for the Barbarians, and can act as a second fly-half, his first choice position for Exeter, he has good feet and distribution, while although a slender frame he stopped Rene Ranger in full flight for the Barbarians in a one-on-one, and they don’t come much bigger than that!
A future option looking beyond the World Cup is the talented Ollie Devoto of Bath, who can play fly-half, centre and full back. Although still a way off from the finished product another youngster at only 20 the LV= Breakthrough Player of the 2014 could provide the spark at centre, while being no small fry himself at over 6 foot and the best part of 15 stone. He came off the bench for England against the Barbarians and created 2 tries with a clever break and kick, just glimpses of his future potential. Probably not ready for what would be a baptism of fire in a home World Cup next year, Devoto could be the lynchpin of England’s midfield in the future, alongside an aging but more experienced Tuilagi, who like Ma’a Nonu, one can only hopes gets better with age.
Still none the wiser about my selection headache I went for the Ford, Farrell, Tuilagi combination, providing pace to nip through the gaps, a goal kicker, and a battering ram that could release the wingers. Well it worked against the computer, but could it work in reality come next year’s World Cup?