Our resident analyst returns to break down the respective qualities of two very different centres in Brad Barritt and Wesley Fofana.
In rugby there’s often a very fixed idea of what to look for in a player. If we’re looking at a back we should focus on metres made and tries, if we’re looking at forwards then tackles and turnovers are the important stats. However, this article will look at two players who contribute far more to their team’s success than the surface numbers will show.
Saracens stretched their winning streak in Europe into a second season with an away victory against Toulon. As with so many of their victories, it was built on superior territory – they actually had less than 50 percent for the whole game, but they dominated territorially in the first half where they ran away with the game, and brutal defence.
A huge part of that defensive effort is South African-born centre, Brad Barritt – no back made more tackles, 14, than Barritt over the entire weekend. In four of the seven games played over the weekend, the player with the most tackles in the game failed to top Barritt’s tackle count.
The Saracens centre may well have seen his stock fall since a dismal World Cup showing, where his defensive work-rate wasn’t backed up by forwards who could steal the ball and his attack was shown up. However, since that disastrous tournament, he has come back to Saracens, a team that doesn’t require him to be a distributor, and he has seen something of resurgence.
Brad Barritt, green circle, lines up in the key defensive position, as a link between the forwards and the backs. He has two players to cover, Ma’a Nonu, yellow, and Josua Tuisova, blue. These are two big ball carriers, if he cheats to one or the other then he will open up a hole for them to run through and gain significant yardage.
As you can see, the English centre holds his ground and waits until it’s clear that Tuisova is going to receive the ball. His movement is very subtle, he has kept his eyes on Tuisova as the play has developed and as soon as the Fijian gets the ball, Barritt drifts away from Nonu and takes the ball carrier low. If Barritt was forced to stretch for the winger he would’ve been brushed aside with ease. His great reading of the game and positioning prevents this.
We’ve jumped ahead to the tackle which would end up winning the game for the English champions. Barritt is once again defending at the end of the forwards, much like a third flanker. The forwards on his inside don’t have any big gaps to worry about but he is also responsible for the big hole on his outside shoulder.
If he makes this tackle he will bring Basteraud down with both Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola immediately there to strip the ball; if one of them was forced into the tackle then the chances of a turnover decrease. Unfortunately for the French centre, Barritt’s tackle dislodges the ball and Saracens escape with the win.
The last example we will look at shows just how valuable the centre is defensively. By making tackles like the one below he takes the pressure off the rest of his pack and allows them to focus on snatching the ball, Saracens managed 15 turnovers in the game. The context of this particular example is that Toulon drove a maul from a lineout to the five-yard line. His technique is superb, he gets low and halts forward momentum instantly then he immediately gets up and does the same thing one phase later.
Barritt doesn’t have the distribution skills of most centres at the top level, and that’s often been used as a stick to beat him with – I’ve definitely been guilty of it in the past. But, the excellent distribution of Farrell and Goode doesn’t happen without the work he does. He absorbs more than his fair share of hits so that the loose forwards can steal more ball and the backs can attack with fresher legs. It’s the Barritt effect.
In stark contrast to Barritt is Wesley Fofana. The Frenchman made just five tackles on the weekend, Clermont made 139 as a team, so he had 3.6 percent of the total. However he led the team in carries, defenders beaten, clean breaks, offloads and was second in metres made.
Whereas Barritt operates as a third flanker, Fofana plays as a second distributor. His footwork and distribution are a constant concern for the outside forward who has to both watch the short crash ball and drift hard to close down the space if the ball goes wide. As the game goes on the mental and physical pressures placed on the defence lead to mistakes.
Fofana creates holes for his teammates by taking the ball so flat on the line and fixing a number of defenders before either hitting the line or distributing. In the above example he is barely a yard from the defence and then hits Camille Lopez who is looping round. Fofana has fixed defenders and created a hole and the fly-half breaks the gainline.
In the penultimate example, we see just how influential Fofana is. This is the build up to his opening try. Gareth Steenson has trouble on his outside shoulder, with Fofana lurking, but he’s well supported on the inside by the pack. However, Fofana switches – suddenly Steenson no longer needs to rush out of the line to close the space and Fofana has fixed the forwards. The defensive line pulls apart at the seam between Steenson and the pack. Lopez makes the break and then passes inside to Fofana for the opening try. Anybody could finish off the try but very few players are influential enough without the ball to create it.
The final example is a simple look at how Fofana stretches the defence. In this example he is clearly going to be the recipient of the ball and so Thomas Waldrom blitzes him to take him down behind the gain line. Fofana steps him and although he only really succeeds in getting back to the line it’s much better than getting dumped behind it. Plus, when you require the attention of two defenders, there’s someone, somewhere, who is uncovered.
Wesley Fofana scored two tries on the weekend but his impact on the game was much greater. Equally, Brad Barritt didn’t cross the whitewash once and only ran the ball once. Both players do something that makes their teams great, they take the pressure off the team-mates around them.
They do it in very different ways and it’s much easier for the casual fan to spot the impact that Fofana has but Barritt shoulders a huge burden for the Sarries and his importance far outweighs any gaudy carry or metres made figures. Equally, Fofana’s high carry numbers hide a lot of the work that he does in attack without the ball.