- Three reasons why Luther Burrell can prevail against Brian O’Driscoll
- Centre set for first Twickenham appearance after long journey to the top
Discrepancies in Test rugby experience do not get more acute than when a glance is cast towards the likely No.13 shirts lining up for England and Ireland in the RBS 6 Nations clash on Saturday.
While doyenne of European rugby centres Brian O’Driscoll will play his 139th Test and draw level with George Gregan as the most capped player of all time, his opposite number Luther Burrell will appear at Twickenham in an international for the first time on the occasion of his third cap.
Burrell oozes respect for a man he regards as a genuine icon of British and Irish rugby but the 26-year-old is bullish about England’s chances of overturning the unbeaten visitors, and his role within the drive for victory.
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Buoyed by his “hell of a start” in scoring tries in each of his RBS 6 Nations games, Burrell spoke with a calm authority and during the conversation three reasons emerged which could tip the balance in the favour of the Huddersfield-born Northampton Saint.
Firstly, Burrell has faced O’Driscoll’s Leinster twice in the Heineken Cup this season, with edifying lessons learnt from the vastly different outcomes. The Irish province – rammed full of Ireland internationals – ran riot at Franklin’s Gardens with a 40-point haul, as O’Driscoll scored a try and executed an outrageous through-the-legs pass for another. But a week later Northampton shocked the three-time champions with an 18-9 victory in Dublin, with Burrell in no doubt why the stark turnaround occurred.
“I think we were on a seven or eight game win-streak and perhaps we may have got a little complacent and then we came up against some of the best players in the world,” he said. “We realised that if we switch off we would be put to the sword. So the second week when we went over there we had a massive emphasis on being aggressive, getting off the line, putting the big shots in and then everything else would fall into place with our game plan.
“And I believe England have that mentality of taking the game to the opposition, we don’t sit back, we don’t let teams bring their game plan to us. We’ve done our homework, we’ve done our knowledge and hopefully it will all fall into place.”
Stand off top-level operators and you will fall hard, but apply intensity to everything you do and you can prosper – a mentality easy to understand from an abrasive rugby player standing 6’ 3” and weighing 109kg.
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Turn to his fledgling midfield partnership with Billy Twelvetrees and a second factor emerges, one which hints at the culture head coach Stuart Lancaster has worked hard to establish in his squad.
In an atmosphere where everybody’s opinion is valued, work on the field and in the gym must be augmented by study off the field if England are to realise their potential. For Burrell, the result is all-important trust between combinations.
“Billy is a fantastic player to play with, he speaks well in games and gets us on the front foot, and I believe that partnership is working really well at the moment. We spend a lot of time with each other off the field, looking through games and understanding how each other wants to play.
“That’s massively important because we haven’t played together much, only two caps together. We have a lot of confidence in each other and it’s about trust. I believe he trusts me as I trust him.”
The third factor appears when Burrell talks about his challenging journey to the pinnacle of the game, which included spells at Huddersfield Rugby League, Huddersfield, Leeds Carnegie (where he first crossed paths with Lancaster and trained with Leeds Rhinos) and Sale Sharks, before flourishing under Jim Mallinder at Northampton.
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Working harder than those around you to achieve a long-held ambition engenders desperation to remain at the top and when Burrell touches on what it means it play for England at Twickenham, the words are delivered with an emotion which suggests he really means it.
Along with seemingly “the whole of Huddersfield”, Burrell’s parents will be in the crowd and he said: “From an early age they travelled up and down the country with me and got me to places that I would not have been able to go on my own, so in that respect I am in their debt.
“I had a tough time at previous clubs, I’ve had to work hard, harder than some others and it’s not been an easy path for me to get here. Finally I am here and it’s something I don’t really want to let go of.
“I can’t really tell you how much this is going to mean to me. But not just me, my family, my partner, my partner’s family, everyone that has supported me on this journey. It’s something that I’m going to cherish for the rest of my life and something that I’ll never forget.”