Boring Barritt can fill gaping hole in centre of England
Saracen's defensive qualities could be well suited to reviving Red Rose fortunes
One of the many moments of teeth-grinding frustration during England's World Cup in the autumn was the selection of Toby Flood for the climactic quarter-final with France. Having careered through most of the previous 18 months with Shontayne Hape as his preferred inside centre, Martin Johnson chose Flood outside Jonny Wilkinson while all that faith in the much-criticised Kiwi convert from rugby league went up in a puff of smoke.
Now Johnson as manager and Wilkinson the fly-half have gone from the England scene and under an interim coaching regime headed by Stuart Lancaster the talk is of renewal and fresh opportunities.
At least two parts of the England midfield last seen in Auckland comprising Wilkinson, Flood and Manu Tuilagi need rejigging and the form of the league champions, Saracens, has made their trio of Charlie Hodgson, Brad Barritt and Owen Farrell prime contenders.
Flood to start at fly-half with the 31-year-old Hodgson as back-up? Farrell, at 20, to receive an audacious nod at No 10 over the pair of them? Tuilagi to be fit to face Scotland on 4 February, considering his dodgy hamstring? The answers supplied by Lancaster when he names his squad of 32 on Wednesday week, and then his team, may shape England's back play for years to come.
Barritt has been rapping on the door almost since he arrived from his native Durban, with an English qualification through both of his parents, to make his Saracens debut as a substitute for Andy Farrell at home to Gloucester in November 2008. Coincidentally, the same fixture is to be played in Watford this afternoon. More significantly, Farrell has since become Saracens' first team coach, helping them to become Premiership runners-up in 2010 and the champions last May, and he is soon to be seconded to England as assistant to Lancaster for the Six Nations' Championship.
"Andy's been very influential on me," says Barritt, while insisting, of course, that England will pick on merit. "You can just see a very confident and winning approach to what he does, and he's had huge success in both codes. He's very inspiring and a confident speaker. And on the flipside, very technically astute and a hard worker as a coach.
"He's a great team man at the end of the day and it's shown in how Saracens have grown over the last three years. Owen has performed brilliantly and there's numerous guys at Sarries who have put their hand up [for England] – seven guys in the backline alone if you include [wing] James Short and [scrum-half] Ben Spencer who have both been playing well."
So will England choose to import Saracens' style: lock, stock and two Farrells? The 6ft 1in 25-year-old Barritt was man of the match last Tuesday when a defensive masterclass shattered the unbeaten league record of the Premiership leaders Harlequins in front of a world record club crowd at Twickenham.
He has played for England's second-string Saxons since 2009, coming closest to full honours when he was called from the Churchill Cup to the senior tour in June 2010, and started in the non-cap match against New Zealand Maori in New Plymouth. He was included in Johnson's squad the following November only to break a finger just before the autumn Tests.
True, when we meet near Barritt's home in Hampstead, north London, the passers-by – the designer-shoppers and poodle-walkers – do not bat an eyelid. This is football territory, if anything. What is more contentious is that even in rugby circles, respect for Saracens' achievements – 27 wins in the last 30 matches, with Barritt almost an ever-present – is often grudging or simply non-existent.
Brian Moore, the former England hooker (and Harlequin), wrote of Tuesday's 19-11 win watched by 82,000 spectators at HQ that "despite having a wealth of talent, Saracens play a very limited and dull game. Their contribution to the festive occasion... was repeated box and high kicks and suffocating defence." An anonymous contributor to a Quins fans' forum sniped that Saracens might as well have had "a postbox" at inside centre.
Barritt says it is as legitimate to win through defence as by any other means – and more likely in big games. The derision ignores the slashing sidesteps of a back three of Short, Dave Strettle, Alex Goode (all English) and the USA's Chris Wyles. "We sometimes get frustrated that we are quoted as boring," Barritt says, "when if Leinster or Leicester had a good away win like we did at the Ospreys recently it would be called clinical."
Back-to-back wins over the Welsh region have made Saracens England's best bet to reach the Heineken Cup quarter-finals and they will spend a week warm-weather training in Cape Town before their crucial pool match with Biarritz on 15 January.
Never chippy, but chipping away at the idea that he can only play one way, Barritt says: "At Saracens it's all about work-rate. If you are making your tackles, getting back on your feet, helping your mates, it gets credited. In attack, it may be running a dummy line or clearing a ruck. But when I started with the Sharks [in his three seasons of Super 14], coached by Dick Muir, it was a run-at-all-costs mentality. I like to think I'd be adaptable to what any coach wants."
Johnno's inside centres: Lack of continuity – and lack of quality?
v Pacific Islands, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand (Autumn 2008)
v Italy, Wales, Ireland, France, Scotland (Six Nations 2009)
v Argentina (two Tests, May-June 2009)
v Australia, Argentina (Autumn 2009)
v New Zealand (Autumn 2009)
v Wales (Six Nations 2010)
v Italy, Ireland, Scotland, France (Six Nations 2010)
v Australia (two Tests, June 2010)
v New Zealand, Australia, Samoa, South Africa (Autumn 2010)
v Wales, Italy, France, Scotland, Ireland (Six Nations 2011)
v Wales (home, August 2011)
v Wales (away, August 2011)
v Ireland (August 2011)
v Argentina (World Cup 2011)
v Georgia (World Cup 2011)
v Romania, Scotland (World Cup 2011)
v France (World Cup 2011).
Saracens v Gloucester is on Sky Sports 2 today, kick-off 3.0
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