What is the Solution to England’s Centre Partnership Dilemma ahead of the 6 Nations?

During the most recent World Cup, Farrell at 12 and Marchant at 13 was the preferred option for Manager Steve Borthwick. Now with Farrell sitting out this tournament and Marchant no longer eligible to play for England since moving to Stade Français, the England manager will have to look at a fresh set of options. Luckily for him, there is plenty of choice, with the past few months of club rugby showcasing the talent England have in the Centres. Now it’s about finding the right combination. To do that, we may well see a fair bit of chopping and changing, after all, this is the tournament to do it in, with three more 6 Nations after this until the next World Cup, so there is no rush in finding the correct duo.

What does England need at 12 and 13? This is quite subjective, but at 12 you can have 1 of 2 styles of players – ‘a second 10’ – someone who offers more of a playmaker role, similar to the job Farrell has mastered over the years. Or, a ‘big ball carrier’. This is someone who can play the role Jamie Roberts did for Wales or Bundee Aki is doing for Ireland currently. Someone like Manu Tuilagi, who is currently out injured and unlikely to feature in this tournament. Looking at who is available, the latter poses better options for England. Partly because both Ford and Smith (the two candidates for the 10 jersey) play in such a way that space will be created in the 12 channel and a direct runner with power will make best use of that. But also when England hasn’t played well it has been down to their inability to get over the gain line and create a quick ball. So, having a big ball carrier at 12 may solve this problem.

Who are the candidates? The frontrunner is probably Ollie Lawrence of Bath. Lawrence has excelled this year wearing 13 rather than 12, and his ability to carry well has been complimented by his speed in the outside channels and success at bringing the wingers into the game. If he does wear 12 this element of his game may have to be sacrificed. Even if he was wearing 13, the chances for him to do what he’s done for Bath all season would be less anyway, as against international teams, the space will be less and the calibre of defence opposite him higher. He is England’s best ball-carrying Centre and will have to play a more systematic role in this team, but his credentials make him the best man for the job. And should he make a clean break, he has developed the skill set to not just get metres but also look to see the options around him, whether that be a pass out wide or the inside ball back to the supporting Scrum Half, which creates genuine try-scoring opportunities.

Beyond Lawrence, Dan Kelly has thrown his name back into the hat. The Leicester Tigers player has sharply risen to form over the past month or two playing a pivotal role in the Tigers’ turnaround in their form this year. Most recently, he looked in excellent form with his attacking and defensive performance in Leicester’s win against Saracens where he picked up an intercept try and nearly had another from a kick and chase, yet it was narrowly ruled that the ball was held up. Whilst not possessing the size that Lawrence does, Kelly would not be a bad fit in this England side, and at only 22 and already capped for England, he has great potential.

Younger still is Olly Hartley. At 21, the Saracens’ Centre has shown real talent this year. Whilst second to English Born, Welsh international Tompkins in the club’s selection hierarchy, Hartley, when called upon, has filled the void extremely competently and will, I’m sure, push for an England call-up soon.

Another option is Seb Atkinson of Gloucester. He has been around the fringes of England selection for a while, offering the direct running and big carriers that England may be after. However, when given the chance in an England shirt he has failed to shine, and with Gloucester’s current form, it is unlikely he will feature in the up-and-coming tournament.

At 13, or Outside Centre, there are a plethora of players to choose from. The most in-form player right now is Henry Slade. Slade was the shock omission from Borthwick’s World Cup Squad in September, but since then he has been fantastic, igniting an Exeter team which are performing at a level well above what many predicted for them this year. He has kicked well and has scored winning conversions and penalties on numerous occasions but also looked deadly in attack in the outside channels. He has that playmaking instinct, knowing when to give the ball and when to go himself as well as the speed and footwork to back up his decisions. If he was to play at 13 alongside Lawrence, it would be a very exciting dynamic, as the two of them would be almost interchangeable between 12 and 13 depending on the aim of the move through the backs.

Although Slade is not the only player who has shone this year who could be in the running for that 13 shirt. Also an accomplished Winger, Tommy Freeman of Northampton Saints has been unreal this season. He has been one of the driving forces in the backline which has seen this Northampton side go from a team with the potential to make the top 4 to a potential favourite to lift the league trophy this year. Defensively sound and exciting in attack, Freeman will not be far away from the England squad. I would select him at 22, coming off the bench to cover the Centre and the Wings. 

Another candidate is Elliot Daly. He has been around a while and his versatility to play across the backline accompanied by his kicking prowess makes him a valuable player. Whilst I criticised his selection for much of the Rugby World Cup, arguing that there were more exciting alternatives who were being left out so he could play, his performance in the Semi-Final on the Wing against South Africa was immense, not putting a foot wrong all game. Since returning to club rugby after the World Cup he has played well, however, now is the time for England to look forward to 2027 and by selecting Daly, the opportunity to develop someone with more potential come 2027 will be lost.

Will Joseph of Harlequins continues to impress since his move from London Irish. He will not be far from the squad this time around, having already been capped during the tour in Australia a few years back. I think he is the third choice at 13 when he is playing on form, but similar to Kelly at 12, he is still so young and possesses serious potential, it may be viable for Borthwick to give him some game time so he experiences test rugby and can prove himself over the next few years.

Overall, Lawrence and Slade should start at 12 and 13. Freeman is probably the best option to have on the bench at 22. Dan Kelly and Will Joseph are the next best options who would benefit from time in the training squad and should injury mean they are called upon, would not be bad fits at all.

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