Centre of the storm
Stuart Barnes analyses England's centres conundrum ahead of their Tests in South Africa.
Last Updated: 05/06/12 10:33am
Andy Farrell's sudden rejection of Saracens heightens the likelihood of father and son being reunited. It does not take Einstein to deduce the most probable port of call for Pere Farrell. Mike Catt - despite some opinions to the contrary - would probably welcome Farrell back into the fold as a defence and motivational coach.
The former Saracen is now odds on to return to national colours but it's the question of Catt that is most interesting as England prepares for the first Test in Durban. The former England midfielder was an ambitious performer with a marked love of quick, wide ball which played into the hands of his long passing game.
Against the Barbarians, England attempted to shift from the narrow corridors in which they had muscled their way to an impressive sequence of Six Nations results. It was an understandable effort to push the barriers that, to date, have not been extended during Stuart Lancaster's tenure.
And it failed miserably. It wasn't helped by one of those rare days when Charlie Hodgson passed poorly. It was however magnified by the distressing unease of the regular Saracen centres, Brad Barritt and Owen Farrell. This column has long argued that the two will never fit into the same attack with any success and Sunday, alas, heightened that theory.
Farrell is a decent distributor in technical terms although his timing is awry at the moment. He has plenty of time to improve but right now he is not the answer to Lancaster's effort to find a passing 12.
Barritt is a defensive rock but offensively he is a hazard. There are shades of the last seven or eight years of Mike Tindall's career, where the defence was as good as the offensive play was bad. England has to be more ambitious than that, surely.
They do but perhaps not if they aspire to win this series. Sorry, we will rewrite that sentence. 'They do but not if they aspire to win this series.' There is no perhaps about it. It goes against every grain in my little typing fingers and body to write it but England has no option but to keep it relatively tight against the Springboks.
England's midfield attack is in poor shape. Ask the question; is it likely to tear the Springboks apart? The answer is a definite negative. Catt has to work on a few strike moves, preferably from first phase, where timing and not accuracy is the buzz word and hope to cut the opposition open on a few telling occasions.
Thereafter, it becomes a matter of kicking goals and outstanding defence. It worked in the Six Nations but neutrals would like to think the summer is going to throw up more ambitious and higher quality international rugby. If the Springboks manage the improved standards, England will struggle to win a Test match, let alone a series but it appears that England's best bet is incremental improvement and a Springbok team playing into their determined hands. More of that later.
It is disappointing but England's best midfield bet is probably the one that finished the Six Nations with Farrell playing extremely limited stuff from 10, Manu Tuilagi looking for the occasional denting run and Barritt organising the defence. The other passing option is to start Toby Flood at 12 but that creates as many, if not more defensive problems as it cures attacking deficiencies. It did not work in the World Cup quarter final and I doubt it would work against a top class attacking game.
To play Flood is to pay lip service to a system that is neither trusted nor ready to run. The long term implications are not positive but if England are heading to South Africa to try and win, the short term need for a structured defence against the long shot gamble of a radically improved attacking game is the only possible decision to make.
Wider out, do not be surprised if Mike Brown moves into full back with Ben Foden switching to the wing. Brown picks better angles (although this might not be of material importance if England's passing game is at the level we saw against the Barbarians) and more importantly has a superior kicking game with a left foot to balance the right of Farrell. And England will require a structure to their kicking against a South African side that will definitely utilise their traditional kicking game with Morne Steyn guaranteed to play the corners.
Foden can bring his fielding skills into action from the wing where he and Chris Ashton would add an edge to the broken field running game. Considering the blunt finishing powers of David Strettle, a change of winger makes sense and England would lose nothing with Brown's boot and angles at 15.
Up front, Joe Marler is a gamble I would like to see made. He has made massive strides in the last month and with Alex Corbisiero recovering from an injury and a period without playing, it is probably the obvious selection. Dylan Hartley is in top notch. Cole will be fine, Mo Botha is in the form of his life and will be inspired by South Africa. In the back row, England has a growing colossus of a captain, vast potential in Ben Morgan and a tricky choice at blind side. Phil Dowson will get the vote but whether his season's Test form merits the choice over the potential and speed of Tom Johnson is another area of debate for the first Test.
England has plenty going for them; it is just a conundrum in the midfield that leaves a vacuum where creativity should be. The void is unlikely to be filled in the next month, although England can and should be competitive.
England WILL be competitive. They have a fantastic opportunity to win the first Test in Durban. It is Sunday morning as I write this postscript and I have had time to study the Springbok squad and the Bulls v Stormers match at Loftus Versfeld.
Despite a rare win for the Stormers at the home of their rivals, the South African team is utterly dominated by the Blue Bulls. Heyneke Meyer, the Boks head coach, is a former Bulls coach and the make-up of the squad suggests South Africa will try and play Bulls rugby. They failed to prevail Saturday night because the opposition defended brilliantly - this is something within England's scope against a team that does not play at too great a pace.
The Springboks look set to play catch and drive from line outs. It was a formidable weapon for the Bulls and led to several penalties but England has the best part of a week to try and negate this potent weapon. After this it looks a matter of 'what else do you have?' Well, there is Bryan Habana in sharp form but with power likely to utterly dominate the need for pace, the winger and the dangerous running game of Francois Hougaard can be negated. Indeed it would be a little bit of a shock if he won the starting berth from Ruan Pienaar. The Ulster nine's tactical kicking will suit Meyer. It might also suit England.
Wynand Olivier (Bulls) over Juan de Jongh (Stormers), Zane Kirchner (Bulls) over Gio Aplon (Stormers) and the tough flanker Jacques Poitgeiter over the player of the weekend, Siya Kolisi is testament to the coach's mindset.
There will be plenty of power, a lot of kicking and not much subtlety. The strategy will suit England down to the ground. If they can stop the driving line out and harass the limited Morne Steyn, England will head for Johannesburg 1-0 up.