Can Barritt solve central issue?
Unfairly maligned as one-dimensional by some, Saracens' South African-born No 12 may actually provide an answer to England's long-standing problem position
A question: who has the most difficult task in English rugby? Perhaps it is Stuart Lancaster, the caretaker Test coach, who has plenty on his mind as he attempts to restore the red-rose nation's credibility as a major force in the sport following the many and varied failings of the Martin Johnson regime.
Maybe it is Ian Ritchie, the governing body's incoming chief executive – a position offering the kind of job security once associated with marriage to Henry VIII. Just conceivably, the award should go to those charged with keeping Danny Care, the troubled Harlequins scrum-half, away from the rozzers.
There is also a wild-card candidate in the form of Brad Barritt, the South African-born centre whose relentless performances for Saracens over the last three years have earned him a place in the senior squad for the forthcoming Six Nations Championship. Barritt's problem is a positional one, the position being inside centre. Why might this be such an issue? Look at the statistics.
Will Greenwood was the last England inside centre of undisputed world class, and he made his final starting appearance in a white jersey as long ago as the spring of 2004. Since then, 14 individuals have been given the opportunity to make some sense of the thing, and 14 have failed to a greater or lesser extent. A handful of them were natural No 12s – Mike Catt, Stuart Abbott, Anthony Allen, Riki Flutey – while others were about as comfortable as a fish in a tree: Ayoola Erinle, who played inside centre the way Les Dawson played Liszt, springs immediately to mind in this regard. Some (Olly Barkley, Shane Geraghty, Toby Flood) were converted outside-halves; some (Henry Paul, Andy Farrell, Shontayne Hape) were cross-coders from rugby league who did not meet all the criteria. Tom May was nothing more than the briefest of stopgaps; Jamie Noon and Mike Tindall looked like discombobulated outside centres and suffered the consequences.
It is a role no Englishman since Greenwood has performed completely persuasively: as with a great King Lear, champion No 12s appear in this country on a once-in-a-generation cycle. As a consequence, successive England coaching teams have spent almost eight years trying to settle on a midfield trio with the potential to go more than a fortnight without getting something horribly wrong and forcing a rethink in selection. They might as well have spent their time pondering the meaning of life or trying to rediscover the principles of alchemy. There have been 87 red-rose Tests since Greenwood left the starting line-up and in the course of them England have fielded more than 40 different combinations at 10, 12 and 13. Even allowing for injuries and the odd Lions call-up, that is a turnover of scary proportions – especially when compared with the long-term stability of the units in New Zealand and Ireland.
Indeed, there are startling numbers all over the place when England's midfield fortunes are under consideration. Of the inside centres who have started a full international post-Greenwood, only the much-criticised Hape managed a run of consecutive appearances reaching double figures: 11 on the bounce between the tactically challenged loss to the Wallabies in Perth in the summer of 2010 and the Grand Slam misfire against Ireland in Dublin last March. Equally startling has been the chopping and changing at outside-half, where only Charlie Hodgson and Toby Flood have played more than nine successive games. Outside centre is even worse. Of the eight players picked at No 13 across those 87 Tests, the six-game streaks of Noon and the World Cup incumbent Manu Tuilagi were the high watermarks of stability.
As Tuilagi is currently crocked, six will remain the figure to beat for a while yet; and as Toby Flood, very much the first-choice No 10 these days, is also struggling for fitness, the general state of flux is set to continue whoever happens to take the field on Calcutta Cup day in three weeks' time. Early indications are that Lancaster will go heavy on the Saracens link by fielding the recalled Charlie Hodgson at stand-off and the brilliant goal-kicking prodigy Owen Farrell (son of the aforementioned Andy) in a roving role, with Barritt holding it all together with his fierce tackling and Springbok-like relish for the physical side of the game. The question is how long the three of them can make it last.
"I've waited a long time for this chance and I'm keen to take it," Barritt said this week, during a break from Saracens' warm-weather training camp in Cape Town, where the short-term goal of beating Biarritz in tomorrow's big Heineken Cup game at Vicarage Road was balanced against longer-term planning for the rest of what promises to be another highly successful campaign for the English champions. "I travelled halfway round the world to play for England against the New Zealand Maori back in 2010 and had good feedback from the coaching team in place at the time, so I did feel some frustration at not making a breakthrough in time for the World Cup. Everything is different now, though. I have an opportunity and I'm the happiest man alive."
Barritt is frequently damned with faint praise: he is widely perceived to be strong, aggressive, direct, hard-working, unusually consistent, utterly reliable ... and thoroughly one-dimensional. In truth, there are good reasons for this. Saracens use the 25-year-old from Durban in a particular way that rarely, if ever, showcases his distribution skills – still less his kicking game. Hodgson and Farrell do all the fancy stuff, as did Glen Jackson before them, leaving their colleague to act as a form of human adhesive. But as the man himself is quick to point out, his is not a bow of the single-stringed variety.
"When I was playing Currie Cup rugby for my provincial side in South Africa, I spent quite a bit of time at No 10," he remarked. "I spent time at outside centre too. Do I have a kicking game? Yes, absolutely. At Saracens we have a definite pattern and I'm more than happy to fit into that, but I'd like to think I could play a completely different kind of game if required. Besides, it's such a collective thing in midfield in the modern game. It's wonderful for us as a club to have a whole unit involved in the Six Nations squad, as well as the other guys in other areas."
Those "other guys" include the wing David Strettle and two of Barritt's fellow South African imports, the lock Mouritz Botha and the prop Matt Stevens. "I made up my mind a long time ago that I wanted to play international rugby for England, so I know I won't have any problems pulling on the shirt if I'm given the chance," he said, aware that this summer's international business consists of a three-Test series in Springbok country and that the first of those matches will be in his own home city. "All the same, it's great to have someone like Matt around. He made this same journey before me and he has a lot of caps now. Seeing him develop, both as a person and as a player, since joining Saracens and re-establishing himself at England level has been an inspiration."
Many at Saracens use the i-word in association with Barritt and if he turns in a big performance when Biarritz come visiting tomorrow, the odds about him making his international debut against Scotland at Murrayfield will be at their shortest. If he fails, it will not be for want of confidence. "Biarritz have had their troubles this season, but with Dimitri Yachvili back at scrum-half they're a different proposition," he said. "It may even be that they've struck a purple patch. On the other hand, Vicarage Road is our patch, and we don't lose many there."
Barritt and Farrell leading the charge for Six Nations places, with the powerful Harlequins midfielder Jordan Turner-Hall within touching distance; Tuilagi on the mend; Billy Twelvetrees and Henry Trinder intent on bridging the gap between the second-string Saxons and the senior side. It is a long while indeed since an England coaching team had such a range of possibilties at centre. All Lancaster needs now is for one of them – just one – to emerge as a modern-day Greenwood. It's not asking much. Or is it?
Centre Stage: The post-Greenwood era
There have been 14 people who have played at inside centre for England since Will Greenwood made his last Test start in 2004. They are:
Mike Catt (10 caps post-Greenwood at inside centre)
Stuart Abbott (2 caps)
Anthony Allen (2 caps)
Riki Flutey (14 caps)
Ayoola Erinle (1 cap)
Olly Barkley (7 caps)
Shane Geraghty (2 caps)
Toby Flood (9 caps)
Henry Paul (3 caps)
Andy Farrell (6 caps)
Shontayne Hape (13 caps)
Tom May (2 caps)
Jamie Noon (4 caps)
Mike Tindall (12 caps)
Research: Theo Rowley
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