"Unbalanced" is a description often applied to crash-ball specialists, although in the English midfield's case the term has more resonance than usual. Because there is no balance in the Red Rose's centre partnership, and if there's one thing you need in Test-match rugby it's that precious commodity.
Andy Robinson, the England coach, is aware of this; he cannot fail to be. One of the most glaring facts of the Six Nations so far has been that Mike Tindall and Jamie Noon are essentially the same player - a very good player, admittedly, but one who, how can I put this, favours the more unsubtle aspects of threequarter play.
If you want a centre to bash the living daylights out of the defence or attackers in front of him, who is adept in the rucks and will not give up an inch all afternoon, then Mike and Jamie are your men. But if you want a more creative sort, who can kick the ball with deadly precision, who can spin the ball wide with line-wrecking pace, who can sniff out the merest whiff of an overlap... well, sorry, you'll have to look elsewhere.
Robinson has, of course, but alas to no avail. What would be ideal is a footballing No 12, but English rugby does not seem to be producing these. Olly Barkley could fit the bill, I suppose, but the Bath playmaker has been injured and as Mike Catt's international obit has bafflingly long since been written, there is a void to be filled. It's a bloody important one as well, as Charlie Hodgson would no doubt testify.
As a former No 10, I cannot place enough emphasis on how comforting it is to have a footballer on your outside shoulder. Jonny Wilkinson had it with either Will Greenwood or Catty, and I had it with Bleddyn Bowen or Mark Ring. Hodgson does not have this luxury, does not have this second five-eighth he can trust to call the shots, whether kicking-wise or passing-wise, and this puts added pressure on him. But what can Robinson do if the option isn't there?
The answer is: there's nothing he can do, although it's a problem he should address by next year's World Cup. In the meantime, the England back-line must make the best of what they've got, and they can start by turning a few of the many overlaps they've been presented with into points. If they had managed to at Murrayfield their Grand Slam campaign would still be on track - regardless of Scotland's heroics - and this shortcoming was only too evident against Wales and Italy as well.
I refuse to accept that this English back-line are not capable of better execution of the overlap. Hodgson must ensure that the ball is quick from the scrum-half, Harry Ellis, and if it isn't he must get the forwards, or yes, the centres, to take it back in and set it up again. When Hodgson does get what he wants, the full-back must be hovering in behind him, ready to arc around to create the extra man, and the rest of the backs (not forwards, mind, they should only be there if they know what they're doing) must be ready to play it flat and play it fast. Personally, for all of Josh Lewsey's qualities, I would prefer Tom Voyce at No 15, because he's a more natural runner of the angles.
But what about Tindall and Noon, doesn't it all break down with them? Well, yes, but as the leader of the backs, Hodgson must boss proceedings and ensure that it doesn't. There's nothing wrong with the English wingers - indeed, they are mighty fine finishers - but so far they haven't been given the ammunition. Watch New Zealand's flyers and see how often their tries are just "run-ins". That's because their backs are the masters at exploiting the overlap; their depth is always spot-on and so is their distribution.
In fact, England may have a glimpse of how it should be done as soon as next Sunday, as France themselves are no slouches when it comes to converting chances, and that's despite having a few first-choice centres sidelined right now. At the Stade de France, I expect another war of attrition, but if France can put their cultured hands on quality ball it could be ominous for England. I still believe Robinson's men can be a force in world rugby, but they need to unearth their creative side. And they need to unearth it quickly.Reuse content