Six Nations: England need Billy Twelvetrees to blossom

Stuart Lancaster has yet to find his ideal midfield combination, but the Gloucester man could help answer his problem

Woefully short of options in the crucial No 10 position even before Rémi Talès of Castres, the current outside-half of choice, was officially declared off-limits because of a lingering biceps injury, the French have just six days to settle on a midfield combination that might prevent them collapsing under the weight of their own inconsistencies for a second successive Six Nations campaign. Still, it could be worse. They could be England.

It is difficult to remember a time when the great midfield conundrum – the search for the optimum configuration at 10, 12 and 13 – was not the agenda-topping item for a  red-rose coaching team. It is possible to argue that England have not been blessed with a world-class outside centre since Jeremy Guscott packed it in some 15 years ago, although Mathew Tait might well have cut the hot stuff had be not been messed around by selectors who should have known better. Manu Tuilagi, you say? Please. Some of the things he does are truly  exceptional, but as there are other things he does not do at all, he can be categorised as a piece of a centre, unnaturally developed.

Equally, it is as plain as the wonky nose on Mike Tindall’s beaten-up visage that there has been no inside centre of the very highest calibre since Will Greenwood was bringing his supreme rugby intelligence to bear on proceedings in the early 2000s. Brian Ashton, the most perceptive of coaches when it comes to these matters, thought Toby Flood had it in him to be the best No 12 around, but others thought differently… and, it quickly turned out, wrongly.

All things considered, then, Billy Twelvetrees has plenty on his plate. The Gloucester midfielder and occasional captain has a skill set of the heaven-sent variety: he has a serious kicking game, he can pass long as well as short, he can off-load out of contact, he can tackle, he is big enough to get himself through the crunch, he has a game-shaper’s breadth of vision. If the 25-year-old from Chichester brings all those elements together over the course of this Six Nations, beginning in Paris on Saturday, he will solve an awful lot of problems.

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“I think it’s so important to start a championship like this with momentum,” he said before heading back to Kingsholm, his home ground, to watch his regular midfield partner Freddie Burns attempt to rediscover the best of himself against the Irish Wolfhounds – an attempt that did not, if truth be told, bear much in the way of fruit. “That’s why this game in Paris is so important. I know we’re going to be scrutinised, that people are looking for the England midfield to set up a solid platform while being creative at the same time. It’s a challenge, but I’m always up for challenges. I think there’s a massive amount more to come.”

Back in the day, when he was squaring up to Philippe Sella and Denis Charvet among others, Guscott  considered the French back division to be the scariest of all. “You can break down what they do on the video and come away thinking you understand it,” he once said. “Then you try to replicate it on the  training field and realise you don’t understand it at all – or at least, you find that you  can’t do it nearly as well as they do.”

Twelvetrees senses a similar degree of danger in the modern-day French approach to the attacking game, even though much of the je ne sais quoi was coached out of them when Bernard Laporte, that most narrowly focused of tacticians, effectively Anglo-Saxonised their rugby while running the national team between 1999 and 2007. “They have huge power in their midfield – they can go straight up the middle at you quite happily – but they also have great balance and a fair bit of flair,” Twelvetrees said. “They have gas, too, and when they really come alive, the old magic is still there. You see it when their clubs are playing Top 14 and Heineken Cup rugby. Something happens suddenly and they move into this unstructured way of playing. We can certainly learn things from their use of space.”

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Over the course of the last few months, during which he has been forced to make do and mend behind a Gloucester pack that has repeatedly been eviscerated at the scrum and beaten at the breakdown, Twelvetrees has been learning about himself. It has not exactly been a barrel of laughs, standing next to Burns on match day and witnessing the country’s most gifted attacking outside-half lose form and confidence in so public a fashion, but for his own part, he believes he is a stronger player now than at the start of the campaign.

“When you find yourself playing without good front-foot ball you have to adapt quickly, and the people at 10 and 12 have to influence that process,” he said. “I don’t think it happened in the early part of the season. It’s been a tough experience and I think I’ve come out of it with a different mindset. Freddie? I think we’ll see him back in no time because he’s a very competitive, incredibly gifted man. It’s a key relationship we have and we’re fighting really hard to get the best out of the team. It hasn’t been easy at times but I believe we’re turning the corner now.”

Stuart Lancaster, the England coach, acknowledged early in last autumn’s Test series against the tourists from the southern hemisphere that while the “idea of Twelvetrees” was a thrilling one, it could not yet be squared with the reality. That changed to a degree as the programme unfolded: the Gloucester man’s performances against Argentina and New Zealand were of a different quality entirely from his disappointing initial effort against the Wallabies. Now is the moment for him to drive it home. If he fails, England could turn to Brad Barritt or Luther Burrell or Kyle Eastmond – or even move Owen Farrell into the No 12 role. None of them offers a complete package, however, and given the choice, Lancaster would rather stick than twist.

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