Centre of attention
April 5, 2011
Shontayne Hape has staked his claim for the England No.12 jersey © Getty Images
On a long drive to the west country for a few days' holiday, guess what happened? The radio magically tuned itself to BBC Somerset and the live commentary on a Bath match. So much for getting away from it all.
Seeing as the wife was nodding off in the passenger seat and the dog had other things on its mind, doing the ear-flapping thing through an open window, I waited a while before returning to Glam Rock FM.
The commentators were watching their umpteenth Bath match this season - I would guess the pair of them have seen all or nearly all of them - and their verdict on Shontayne Hape, who was playing in his England position of inside-centre, was illuminating and shocking.
Neither of them rated him as a playmaker. One of them wanted Sam Vesty (ordinarily, a fly-half or fullback) to be starting instead and the other went for Matt Banahan, who surely is an outside-centre if you would have him anywhere near a midfield.
True, Hape's impending move to London Irish might have cost him a little local sympathy from the men on the microphone. But to hear an international player have his talents dismissed so savagely by those who see him every week was extraordinary.
Now, as mentioned in this column before, the World Cup may not necessarily be won by the best team on the planet. The All Blacks could win 100 matches in a row but if they lose the quarter-final, semi-final or final through simple happenstance or bad luck, they'll be done for.
Nevertheless I tend to agree with the assertion doing the rounds that the lack of an England centre partnership to die for, or even to get up in the morning to watch, is a major impediment to the country's World Cup chances. Quizzing the England manager Martin Johnson or his coaching staff about Hape and Mike Tindall is asking precisely the wrong blokes, of course. But even they find it difficult to wax lyrical beyond talking about Tindall's leadership and Hape's defence and "offloading" (as if passing is a rare skill in a centre, although perhaps it is in Tindall's case).
It should be more about the myriad patterns woven by Dan Carter, Sonny Bill Williams and Robbie Fruean during the Crusaders' recent match at Twickenham, about the ability - either individually or in the two and three-man combinations which show us true rugby talent - to get over the gainline and do powerful and beautiful things with the ball when you have done so.
When England's defence coach Mike Ford was asked about Hape during this year's Six Nations Championship he quoted the 24 tackles the former Kiwi had made against France. Well, whoop-dee-do. What does that statistic prove on its own?
Maybe the France back-row had run straight at Hape for 80 minutes - then 24 tackles might not be so difficult to achieve. Even if what Ford said was true, and Hape had gone a long way to keeping France to nine points and winning the match for England - which, as Johnson often reminds us, is the main point of playing - is it enough in the round?
Ford also said that England had worked out (this may not tax you Mensa types out there) that you need to score 20 points to win a Six Nations match and 25 to 30 to defeat a Tri-Nations team. If the worth of Tindall and Hape is to keep the opposition score down, the rest of team have to find ways to score points that do not involve the classic centre skills.
So, what are the alternatives? Assuming that Johnson is as wedded to Tindall rugby-wise as Zara Phillips is soon to be in real life, and only Banahan has been looked at seriously as a back-up at outside-centre for the past two years, we can look only at the No.12 jersey for possible changes.
It appeared as if Riki Flutey was Johnson's first choice there when he became manager and perhaps the nimble, lively-minded Wasp could make a resurgence. Dominic Waldouck, a club-mate of Flutey's, was to my eye the best English centre during the 2009-10 domestic season but he has had so many injuries that his England career never got started - and now the poor bloke has ruptured an Achilles tendon, his chances this year have gone for good.
Is there anybody else out there? Toby Flood or Jonny Wilkinson could do a job but that seems to me an option for the last 20 minutes of a match, rather than a game plan - mainly because I can't see Wilkinson as an 80-minute man in a big Test any more. Jordan Turner-Hall's form has returned to where it was when he was around the squad in Johnson's early days. He is a basher with a bit of flourish. Call him an English Scott Gibbs, if that sounds nicer. Mathew Tait? Too flaky, it seems. James Simpson-Daniel? Too injured. Mike Catt? Too, er, retired.
Brad Barritt, Billy Twelvetrees and Manu Tuilagi (though at his young age more suited at 13) have been the centres mentioned in dispatches by Johnson. Of these I like Twelvetrees the most. He is a big lad (face it, there aren't too many little'uns around the Test arena), and he possesses a nice pass, kicking skills, a bit of bottle and something more intangibly subtle about him than Hape. He also comes from the same Leicester club as England's half-backs.
The wider argument of why England are turning first to New Zealanders as inside-centres can wait for another day, as can questions about why so many players in the centre and flanker positions are getting invalided out of the game. His is an outside chance, but if Twelvetrees is picked for the second-string match against the Barbarians at the end of the season, and the Churchill Cup to follow, he might just answer England's inside-centre question.
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