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

The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
Life and Style

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album