Every comedy act needs a straight man, so Sunday's prime-time Christmas special in Reading – a side-splitting sporting farce that might have been scripted by the Marx Brothers and frequently looked as though it was being performed by them as well – was the perfect showcase for Billy Twelvetrees, the England midfielder who may just be the chap to unlock the national team’s attacking game in the forthcoming Six Nations Championship. With everyone else on the field pratfalling their way through a pantomime of a contest, Twelvetrees somehow managed to rise above it all with a cool-headed contribution of considerable class.
As things stand, the stand-in Gloucester captain is the number one No 12 for his country. Quite right too, given the range of skills he offers: a kicking game as good as his distributive one; a power game that allows him to flick the switch with a variety of offloads; an increasingly sound understanding of the essentials of midfield decision-making. If England’s coaches are even thinking of promoting a route-one merchant like Luther Burrell of Northampton ahead of him, they are a whole lot dafter than they look.
Twelvetrees started at outside-half as the West Countrymen sought to kick-start their desperately disappointing season with a second successive Premiership victory – a decision driven by the continuing issues surrounding Freddie Burns, by some distance the most creative playmaker in the country and probably the most befuddled into the bargain. The word on the street is that Burns will head for Leicester at the end of the season – that the deal is done, if not formally signed and sealed – and under the circumstances, it is tempting to assume that his relegation to the bench is the direct result of his decision to reject a new contract at Kingsholm. If that is the case, no one at Gloucester is prepared to say so.
Nigel Davies, the Cherry and Whites’ rugby director, insists that his selection policy is based on form and form alone, and not even those who support Burns through thick and thin are eager to argue the toss. Burns has been off-colour for weeks now, his goal-kicking stats heading south at an alarming rate and his game management some way short of perfect, so the truth of the matter is probably more mundane: Twelvetrees is playing 10 because in Davies’ view, he is the man most likely to press the right buttons at the right time behind a pack that offers precious little in the way of assistance. Yesterday, it was difficult to question his reasoning.
So what of Burns’ future? Would Davies kick up a stink if he stumbled across incontrovertible evidence that Leicester had been talking to the outside-half well in advance of the agreed January date? “I’d be disappointed if that was the case,” the Welshman said, “but there are rules and there is reality. I think we all know what happens – not just with Freddie Burns but across the board – and it needs looking at. However, I’ve lost important players before in my coaching career. The important thing is how you react. It’s a bit like Moneyball these days. What you do off the field in terms of recruitment is almost as important as what you do on it.”
London Irish have been as active as most in the transfer market just recently, but signings are not worth a thimble of warm of spit unless they actually appear on the field. C J Van der Linde, the World Cup-winning South African prop, was on the team sheet for a club debut, but pulled out shortly before kick-off after failing a fitness test on a dodgy calf muscle. The Gloucester pack, whose scrummaging has been all over the place this term, breathed a collective sigh of relief and set about providing a set-piece platform from which Twelvetrees could run the show.
Which he proceeded to do, despite an early setback in the form of a try from the Exiles’ centre Fergus Mulchrone, who took full advantage of some soft defence from the first free-kick of the contest, no more than 90 seconds in. Twelvetrees reduced the deficit to a single point with well-struck penalties on seven and 19 minutes before giving his ultra-rapid wing Jonny May a home-free sprint to the line with an inspired flick pass from the base of a ruck. He went on to add two more penalties before forcing Jebb Sinclair into a high tackle and asking Burns to land what would prove the match-winning kick while he cleared his head.
Burns, summoned to duty off the bench after Mike Tindall fluffed a cover tackle on Eamonn Sheridan and allowed the home centre to touch down in the right corner, was not seriously tested by the kick, but it was just as well he nailed it. With 10 minutes left, a high-ball fumble from the otherwise excellent Rob Cook allowed Shane Geraghty to orchestrate an attack that resulted in a second try for Sheridan, and London Irish might even have squared things up had Geraghty not underclubbed a long-range shot at goal at the last knockings.
Yet in truth, the Exiles did not deserve more than a losing bonus point. Hopelessly undisciplined at the tackle area, horribly butter-fingered in contact and laughably directionless at half-back, they did everything in their power to ease Gloucester away from the Premiership table red zone – and cement themselves further into it.
London Irish: Tries Sheridan 2, Mulchrone; Conversions Humphreys, Geraghty. Gloucester: Try May; Conversion Twelvetrees; Penalties Twelvetrees 4, Burns.
London Irish J O’Connor; T Ojo, F Mulchrone, E Sheridan, A Lewington (A Fenby, 76); I Humphreys (S Geraghty, 48), T O’Leary; M Parr (J Yapp, 53), J Stevens (M Mayhew, 53), L Halavatau (J Hagen, h-t), G Skivington (capt), I Gough (N Rouse, h-t), K Low, O Treviranus, B Cowan (J Sinclair, 53).
Gloucester R Cook (M Thomas, 72); C Sharples, H Trinder, M Tindall (F Burns, 57), J May; W Twelvetrees (capt), J Cowan (D Robson, 62); N Wood (Y Thomas, 57), H Edmonds, S Puafisi (S Knight, 62), E Stooke, J Hudson (W James, 71), M Cox, M Kvesic, B Morgan.
Referee A Small (London).
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