Lancaster’s Midfield Debate – Should Tuilagi come back?

What an opening weekend to the Six Nations that was, from the first whistle in Cardiff to the last in Rome quality rugby has been on show. From O’Driscoll’s wizardry and Zebo’s flick, Farrell’s maturity and Billy Twelvetrees’ debut, to Italy’s marvellous win, it has been gripping.

What captures my attention for the purposes of today’s blog though is the debate that Stuart Lancaster now faces over the make up of his midfield against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday.

The performance of Billy Twelvetrees against Scotland was excellent, his ability to mix footballing abilities and hard running making him an excellent foil to Farrell inside him and Barritt outside.

It seemed also to bring out the best in Farrell, who attacked the gain line in a way we have rarely seen him do for either Saracens or England in the past.

The problem for Stuart Lancaster is, and it is a nice problem, that Manu Tuilagi is expected to be fit for England’s trip to Ireland this weekend. Tuilagi is perhaps England’s most dangerous attacking weapon, a one man wrecking ball whose performance against New Zealand in the autumn was simply sensational.

All of which means that if Tuilagi is to come back into the side, as many say he must, then either Twelvetrees or Brad Barritt will have to be dropped. When he first picked Twelevetrees, it seemed that the idea was to cap him but then bring back the Farrell, Barritt, Tuilagi midfield that destroyed the All Blacks, Twelvetrees’ performance rather throws a spanner in the works of that plan though.

The solution many have come with is to drop Barritt, after all he is the most limited of all the midfield options in the EPS, and to therefore start with Twelvetrees at 12 and Tuilagi at 13. However, I would not do this, for three reasons, the first of which is purely practical.

The first is that Manu Tuilagi has not played since January 13th, no matter how good you are, the international arena is no place to be searching for match fitness. It will be almost a month since Tuilagi’s last match, bring him on off the bench where his lack of fitness ought not to affect his game too much.

The second, and this is purely a personal belief, though founded on good analysis, is that I think it is necessary in the modern game to have a top class defender in your midfield.

If you look at the top sides, both now and over the last 10 years or so, a world class defender in the midfield is something that links them all. Conrad Smith in the All Blacks, Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy for Ireland, Jonathan Davies is one of the best spot defenders in the world for Wales, despite a horror show at the weekend.

You can take your pick of South African centres, but Jean De Villiers in 2007 was impenetrable, while Mike Tindall was England’s defensive leader in 2003. France for years were marshalled by Jauzion, before turning to Rougerie as their backline’s defensive mastermind.

Even Australia, for all their attacking flair, see the need for it, from Stirling Mortlock in the past to the likes of Pat McCabe now. A world class defender in the centres is vital. Even going back to the 1997 Lions, Scott Gibbs spent much of his time demonstrating a masterclass in defending as he covered both himself and Jeremy Guscott.

In my view Brad Barritt is that man for England. Yes he is a limited attacking force, but he is the best defender in the England back line and that should not be underestimated.

Billy Twelvetrees and Manu Tuilagi are not top class defenders yet. Tuilagi is one of the most destructive tacklers around but as a defensive organiser he is not there yet, he is still to rash, too inclined to come in and hit rather than keep his shape and remember that the touchline is his friend.

Twelvetrees is a vastly improved defender without any doubt, and he may well progress to become the kind of man around whom the England defence can be built around, but he is not ready for that yet. Barritt is, and while his attack and creativity may be limited, with Farrell and Twelvetrees alongside him that is ok, his presence will not stop them using the ball creatively.

I would therefore pick Twelvetrees and Barritt on that basis as, despite the All Blacks performance, I feel Tuilagi and Barritt is too limiting on England’s creativity, and if you need a top rate defender then Barritt must be there.

The third reason is that I see Tuilagi at the moment, in the same way as New Zealand saw Ma’a Nonu a few years ago, as a bit of a luxury item.

This is not meant to be a criticism of the Leicester Tiger, more a praise of what he is good at. Tuilagi is absolutely world class at breaking tackles, his ability to burst through a defence is almost unrivalled, much as Nonu’s was when he first came on the scene.

The problem is that, like Nonu, his other skills are not yet developed enough. His defence as I said is not quite ready yet, and his passing skills are not what they could be. In the autumn internationals before the New Zealand game you could see Chris Ashton getting more and more frustrated as the ball just kept failing to get to him from the giant centre.

However, he is only 21 years old, time is very much on his side and he will develop these skills. You only have to look at the example of Ma’a Nonu again. He has now developed into one of the very best players in the world at using turnover ball. The pace with which he attacks fast turnover ball is ferocious and he has developed the ability to take it right up to the line before fizzing it out to his wide men, he is devastating with it.

He has learned that having all that power is brilliant and you can do great things with it, but that the key is to use it sparingly, there is no point going flat out at the heart of the defence every time – they will wise up. Sometimes you are best to just spread the ball and use that world beating piece of skill just once or twice a game but to devastating effect.

Tuilagi is in a fantastic position, he already has a world-class attribute, he just has to add the smaller bits around it. Most players will go their whole career searching in vain for a world-class attribute.

So I would pick Twelvetrees and Barritt, with Tuilagi on the bench. But then I am just a man with a keyboard and a set of opinions; the truth of the matter is that Stuart Lancaster is in an enviable position of being able to choose between some top quality players, and that there is really no ‘wrong call’ on this one.

By Angus Savage

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