Planet Rugby

England's inside centre conundrum

01st July 2014 18:09

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England s inside centre conundrum

Maligned: Billy Twelvetrees - Wildcard: Sam Burgess

Just nine games remain plus warm-ups before England play their World Cup opener against Fiji but unlike in 2003, there remain doubts over a key jersey.

Usually a year out from the global showpiece is when head coaches tend to stick rather than twist when it comes to selection, with some countries having settled such as New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Wales, all of whom developing strong XVs who know their roles and what's required.

New Zealand are set to add Sonny Bill Williams back into the mix at the end of the year - an outstanding option other than Ma'a Nonu - while South Africa will soon have Jean de Villiers back from injury and with Jan Serfontein a quality youngster, both teams are well stocked outside fly-half.

The Wallabies meanwhile have one of the underrated players in world rugby currently wearing twelve in Matt Toomua, whose injury timeframe on his adductor strain they will hope isn't substantial. Like their SANZAR rivals, they have a high-class ready made replacement in Kurtley Beale.

But why is this number twelve jersey so important? An inside centre needs to tick all the boxes when it comes to defence, both with their technique and communication, be a kicking option other than the fly-half, crucially offer a different viewpoint to the pivot and also be a solid distributor.

And so we come to England. The lesson learned from the New Zealand tour is that Manu Tuilagi has to play 13, but England have tried Billy Twelvetrees, Brad Barritt and Kyle Eastmond outside ten and it seems boss Stuart Lancaster is still unsure, possibly even more so after the recent series defeat to the All Blacks. Because of this, Sam Burgess' name has once again come to the fore.

Burgess is expected to fall short in a couple of those areas, particularly kicking and possibly vision due to him being new to union next year, but there's no doubt he would cause defences numerous problems with ball in hand. His form for the South Sydney Rabbitohs and England RL has been nothing short of outstanding and it will be interesting to see how long Bath opt to use him at eight as they've stated. In our eyes, twelve is his best position.

The promise of Burgess' speed, power and quick feet alongside Manu Tuilagi is surely in Lancaster's mind and on this footage, he would have a gem.

Twelvetrees was long considered the playmaking inside centre Lancaster craved and it was no coincidence that when fit, the Gloucester twelve found himself in England's starting line-up.

However inconsistency in performances, most recently in June's second Test, cost him his place in the third game, with Eastmond getting another bite of the cherry. Fortunately - from his viewpoint - the Bath man's defence reopens the door to Twelvetrees.

When on song the 25-year-old does offer something unique but if he is what Lancaster desires, then he simply must start every fixture in November.

Kyle Eastmond's first two Test matches couldn't have gone more differently. He was a constant threat in Auckland, breaking the line and using his quick feet to good effect while staying strong in defence. Yet in Hamilton he was the scapegoat for England's defensive collapse, hauled off at half-time.

The talent is there, but the opportunities going forward may not be. Consistency for Bath, where Eastmond was second choice to Ollie Devoto at the end of last season, has to be his first priority.

On tour and only featuring the Crusaders, Brad Barritt has been more or less forgotten about in the conversations surrounding England's inside centre. Barritt is occasionally unfairly tagged as an unimaginative number 12, a claim that isn't entirely accurate.

Defensively for England in the past he has been integral, but in a positive note for Stuart Lancaster his team have moved beyond defensively relying on one man and can now operate under Andy Farrell's system as a unit - providing the All Blacks don't tear them apart. Barritt has a role to play in the squad but may not start.

Luther Burrell has been primarily used by England at 13, but plies his trade for Premiership champions Northampton at inside centre. Whether the management reconsider where to select Burrell remains to be seen, the initial impression being that a pairing of Burrell and Tuilagi would be too one-dimensional despite their talents.

There is always the leftfield option of shifting Owen Farrell out but that should only be considered if George Ford or one of the other fly-half contenders hit an outstanding run of form.

In contention too are youthful outsiders, Devoto of Bath and Sam Hill at Exeter, but as of yet there is no immediate solution with the clock ominously ticking.

So, who do you choose? Let us know below in the comments who England need at 12 by September next year.

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