- Will Greenwood discusses England's centre options with RFUtv
- "Right now I'd go with Twelvetrees and Tuilagi" – 55-Test former centre
Will Greenwood believes England have the variety to develop a world-leading centre combination, with Billy Twelvetrees the No.12 who marries the distribution and physicality to bring the best out of Manu Tuilagi.
Citing the examples of Sonny Bill Williams (now showcasing his offloading physicality for rugby league’s Sydney Roosters), Jamie Roberts and Ma’a Nonu, the former England centre says at least one sizable, gain-line-busting midfielder is a prerequisite for success in the modern game.
If that is where the discussion starts, 112kg Tuilagi, probably at outside centre, becomes a must pick for Stuart Lancaster. But given that the Leicester Tigers man has bludgeoned his way to five tries in his last eight England games, who should provide the ammunition for most their potent attacking weapon?
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For Greenwood, who played 55 Tests for England, the decision rests on the approach England want to take and therein the composition of the whole back division.
“The safe option is Brad Barritt, he was a key man in the victory over the All Blacks,” he said. “Brad is so dependable and so rock solid defensively and the selection depends on the style you want to play with. If you pick a Wade, a Yarde, an Ashton, with a Foden at the back or a Goode who can play as second receiver at times, then Brad fills the bill perfectly.
“But if you want a centre that offers at little bit more distribution, you would go for Billy Twelvetrees, who had a cracking game against Scotland. His issue is consistency; you want to see him playing week-in, week-out to top level for Gloucester, as opposed to two in every three weeks. That might be harsh, but in terms of nailing down that jersey for 2015, I think that’s what Stuart Lancaster would look for.”
As Greenwood referenced, try-scorer Barritt was Tuilagi’s chief lieutenant when New Zealand were dismissed by a record margin at Twickenham last December, a performance that lingers long in the memory.
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But perhaps conditioned by his history as a smooth-running centre who sashayed to 31 England tries, the three-time Lions tourist opted for Twelvetrees when pushed on who he would start against Australia in the first QBE International on November 2.
“Realistically, I’d go right now with Twelvetrees and Tuilagi,” he said. “I’d get Twelvetrees geed-up, psychologically talk about how good he was against Scotland. He can offer that distribution both ways, that good physicality, that second kicking option. That would be my combination, with Kyle Eastmond covering the back-three and able to drop in [at centre] and offer something special.”
Bath Rugby's Kyle Eastmond, who just edged out domestic team mate Jonathan Joseph to be the fourth centre option in Lancaster’s latest EPS, sparkled on the summer tour to Argentina and there is palpable anticipation about how the 23 year old can develop.
With “all the ingredients in the pot to be an outstanding rugby player” Greenwood has watched the rugby league convert closely and enthused about his ability to beat players in small spaces.
After adding the caveat that the Pumas were missing 21 frontline players in preparation for their Rugby Championship campaign, he added: “Kyle’s got incredible ability to beat a player one-on-one, the try he scored against Argentina when he stepped inside, I’m pretty confident I could’ve done the first step and then I would’ve been swallowed up by three Argentine back row forwards.
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“He really impressed in Argentina, his distribution was really strong. But I come at it with a microscope and I see that most of his passes were right-left.
“Now I can’t throw stones in glass houses because most of my distribution was right-left, but can he also do left-right? That will be one of the keys that he works on with Andy Farrell and Mike Catt to be able to grow his game. I’m excited about the start of the season and watching the midfield match-ups that Stuart Lancaster can pick from.”
And overall, what are the prospects for England’s midfield pairing, which has been seen as a problem position since Greenwood himself retired in 2004. Not so long ago – as England prepared for Rugby World Cup 2011 in fact – there had been 13 different combinations used in 35 Tests under Martin Johnson, but Greenwood thinks those problems are a thing of the past.
“I wouldn’t say it was a position that right now we’re world leaders, but we’ve got the ability to grow a combination that can begin to match other world combinations,” he concluded.