Jeremy Guscott: Luther Burrell and Billy Twelvetrees are big men for big job

Billy TwelvetreesThe starting England backline in this season’s Six Nations should have a locked-in belief that they can strike up a connection quickly enough to allow them to score tries through clever decision-making and slick attacking moves.
However, I’m cautious in my expectation because I’ve not exactly been blown away by the skill, speed and authority the England backline has demonstrated in recent times.
I don’t believe I’m being too hard when I say the opposition must have looked at the England backline in the past and thought – we’re not going to be overly stretched. By comparison, they would look at the Welsh backs and think – this is going to be a frontal onslaught for the full 80 without much guile but with in-your-face speed and size.
It might be slightly unfair to use Wales, because in this current era Wales do have some incredible athletes to select from. England have to make the most of what is available – but looking at a possible midfield pairing of Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell I start thinking the Welsh aren’t such behemoths.
Burrell is 6ft 2in and almost 17 stone, Twelvetrees is 6ft 3ins and also over 16 stone, and, even with the most basic of attacking shapes, that’s reasonable heft and speed to send at the gain-line.
Any defence certainly has to man-up with good confidence to hit back hard if Twelvetrees and Burrell are fired in their direction. When you add the skill-sets of both players to their body mass you’ve not just got a powerful double barrelled force but a combination of passing, off-loading, and pace.
My gut feeling is that these two might just have the right ‘feel’ for a centre pairing.
Burrell has had a good season, catching the eye with some good line-breaks, off-loads and tries. His stats don’t make amazing reading, but you’d like to think players aren’t selected just because of their statistics. He’s used to playing inside-centre with Saints, but England are likely to play him at outside centre with Twelvetrees at inside.
In defence Burrell will feel a little uncomfortable at 13 compared to 12. It’s only one place further out, but because your wingers are not generally renowned for tight defence you can feel a little isolated and exposed.
My experience tells me that when the ball is in that 13 channel you have to think and act quickly, but not getting ahead or behind your teammates. You have to believe your inside will be covered, and you have to tell your winger who you have – that way he knows when to stay out or when to turn-in and follow.
I don’t believe pace will be a huge issue for Burrell. If the blindside winger, who could be lightening, does come from deep you have to read it and make the necessary adjustments. That’s the name of the game.
Twelvetrees is likely to get that inside-centre spot. I remember Stuart Lancaster saying he preferred a play-maker at 12, and although Twelvetrees didn’t have a particularly stellar autumn series he improved through the games.
England need that ‘go-to’ player who has the calmness, self-belief, and who delivers consistently good enough performances to lead this mostly inexperienced backline. Remember, we want them to attack for England in the same way we’ve seen them do for their clubs.
Not since Will Greenwood has England had that go-to player, certainly in attack, who is running the show, directing, talking and showing the guys the keys to the kingdom. If he told the forwards he wanted the ball he got it, purely because he backed himself to produce the goods.
Twelvetrees has the skill-set, but I would challenge him to be that player. He can make it happen with the talent he has – he is a good enough player to make that mark and lead by example.
Watching Owen Farrell develop has been interesting because I’m convinced he can visually see some attacking opportunities, but sometimes he can’t get his body to do what his mind sees.
Saracens appear to have changed their attacking strategy, and they’re scoring more tries. That suggests Farrell is seeing and learning a lot more of what attacking is about – and it should be transferable to his game for England.
Seeing him double back for his try against Australia in the autumn showed me he’s starting to look more at defences and make decisions on the move, which is a step up from where he was.
It’s not been plain sailing for Farrell when you think about how many scrum-halves he’s had to connect with, plus he’s only really been nailed on as England’s first choice 10 for the last eight games. Ben Youngs seems to be the nine he connects with best, and, although I think Danny Care should get his shot if he’s injury-free, Youngs feels a better fit.
Scrum-half has been a problematic area for England. It’s all very well having the likes of Ben Youngs, Danny Care, Lee Dickson and Richard Wigglesworth competing against each other, but none of them have taken ownership of the shirt.
They are all different styles of scrum-half, which means the tempo and rhythm of the team is continually changing. You must pick a player to play the game they play not the game you want them to play. Youngs and Care are the best attacking nines in that line-up, so give them a run of games.
However, don’t expect a backline to fire if you keep changing your 9-10 combination because these are the guys who have their hands on the ball the most.
England certainly won’t lack for pace on the wings with the likes of Anthony Watson and Jonny May, and with Marland Yarde maybe getting back before the end of the Six Nations. Time might be up for Chris Ashton, who hasn’t stood out in recent England games for the right reasons, and it is time to let the young guns have a go.
Christian Wade would certainly have been given a chance if he hadn’t been injured, with Yarde also keeping his place. The next best are May and Watson, so give them a go – but don’t take them down if a bad performance follows. Back them to do what they’re capable of, but accept that they can only do it if the team produces quick ball and makes the right decisions.
Mike Brown did well in the autumn and his challenge applies to most full- backs: get involved in the game more than simply looking to counter-attack. I want to see my full-back running in an attack formation off lineouts and scrums.
A full-back is in the best position to see what the defence is doing and he should be communicating that information to the play-makers. He should be changing the line of attack by running and calling late for a change of direction, or if he spots space on the blindside or a tired forward then he attacks down that channel.
Alex Goode has done well with Sarries, but he’s had his chance. It’s Brown’s shirt to lose, and Goode’s best chance at the moment is to get on as a sub and produce the attacking form he’s shown at club level. Be the difference and you will make selection.
Looking at the likely England backline of Youngs, Farrell, Twelvetrees, Burrell, Watson, May and Brown, it’s pretty raw in terms of experience. The talent is clearly there, but they need to lose the fear of failure – as do the coaches.
Stop being safe, get the connections going and ‘feel’ the game. Let’s see what you boys can produce with some freedom.

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