If column inches and television coverage were the only guide, you might expect to see the gargantuan frame of Sam Burgess – former rugby league prop, second-row and loose-forward, current blindside flanker with Bath – heaving on the England inside-centre’s jersey in the final pre-World Cup warm-up match against Ireland at Twickenham next Saturday.
Instead it will be the returning Brad Barritt, authentically a career-long union No 12, whose conversion has been from Durban to London, not from one code of rugby to another, who will form the starting midfield partnership with Bath’s Jonathan Joseph. If things go well it will stay that way through the World Cup opener against Fiji two weeks later and beyond.
Barritt would have played against France last Saturday evening but for a spot of “neural tightness”, and if that is a euphemism for a sore point, the 29-year-old South African-born player who joined Saracens in 2008 and was picked by Stuart Lancaster for England’s second-string Saxons the following summer was imperturbable and rather non-committal in fielding questions about Burgess, now his squad-mate and positional rival.
“Across the centre roles there’s been a lot of stepping in and out,” Barritt said. “It’s been whittled down from eight to four [Barritt, Burgess, Joseph and Henry Slade, with Owen Farrell able to cover], and that has involved some trial and error.”
Talking of which, the Barritt-Joseph pairing has the flimsiest of form. Next Saturday will be the first time they have started a match together. Their only Test duty in tandem has comprised eight minutes when Barritt was a blood replacement in the first half of the Third Test in South Africa in 2012, and 14 minutes when Joseph went on as a substitute for Manu Tuilagi in the win over the All Blacks at Twickenham in the same year. In May 2012, most hearteningly, Joseph scored two tries in a 30-minute replacement stint alongside Barritt, with Farrell at fly-half, but as it was a non-cap spree versus the Barbarians, it is not much to go on.
“JJ and I have been together in England squads for about four years now, and involved in match-day 23s,” said Barritt. “We have had nine weeks’ preparation together. I believe that is ample time to forge a relationship, and across the board we have zero doubt the combination can gel.”
Other possible England combos are as much a part of history now as The Beatles – Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell in the 2014 Six Nations Championship, for instance: both of them now chopped from the squad by last Thursday’s World Cup cut. Tuilagi and Barritt – so central to that All Blacks victory in 2012 – have been rudely parted by Tuilagi’s injury problems and conviction for assault. Barritt’s own fitness has taken dents in the past 12 months, but gradually his ability to manage the maelstrom around tackles and breakdowns has come to count for more than his lack of a kicking game or searing pace.
Lancaster, who agrees with his assistant coach Mike Catt’s assertion that defence wins World Cups, said: “I remember one hit on Quade Cooper right at the end [of the win over Australia last November] that exemplified the commitment Brad puts in. I’ve never met anyone more competitive, he’s a very, very good defender and he gives confidence to those who defend around him.
“He’s in our leadership group, I trust his opinion. In all the big games we’ve won, he’s played in them. He knows that he’s in a competitive position, up against players with different attributes, and always seems to come out well.”
Saracens, too, were noticeably enhanced with Barritt on the field in their march to last season’s Premiership title. Barritt might have signed for Bath when, aged 18, he spent a week at England’s Junior National Academy in late 2004, alongside Danny Cipriani – another 2015 World Cup reject – and Tom Youngs among others. It was December 2004 and the winter snow at Bath University was not inviting. He went on to play Super Rugby with the Sharks in Natal.
Instead, Lancaster loves to recall what he regards as a seminal first team meeting in charge of England – “that cold, bleak day in Leeds back in 2012” – and Barritt was there, ready for his Test debut in Lancaster’s first match, a win away to Scotland.
“Discipline, goal-kicking and defence are big factors,” said Lancaster. “There were only seven tries scored in semi-finals or finals over the last two World Cups. In 2003, Jonny Wilkinson kicked eight dropped goals in the tournament. Accumulating points and putting pressure on the opposition are a big part of winning international games and that’s what we didn’t get right [against France] last weekend.”
A glut of first-half penalties hurt England in Paris, just as they did in the loss to Ireland in Dublin last March – another match Barritt missed. Does he believe discipline will improve when he is on the field? “I’d like to think so,” Barritt replied. “I’d like to think that one of my strengths is on-field leadership and reading how a game ebbs and flows. Ultimately it’s about being able to read what is happening. In a situation where you are not under any stress, sometimes there is no immediate need to go for the ball. Making those decisions in the heat of battle can be decisive. Last week was a learning curve in terms of what not to do at the breakdown.”
Next week England are set to pick Tom Wood, Geoff Parling and Courtney Lawes in a bid to fix their line-out, with Joe Launchbury and George Kruis in reserve. Fine-tuning, or last-minute experimentation? Lancaster was asked, can England win the World Cup? “Yes, 100 per cent,” he said. “With the country behind us and home advantage, the talent and character we’ve got in the squad. I think we’ll have to be at our best, over seven games, to do it.”Reuse content