Gordon D’Arcy: Burgess is blunder that could bury England
Bath centre lacks the sense of timing required to be effective at international level
Scott Williams leaves England’s Mike Brown and Sam Burgess trailing in his wake at Twickenham. Burgess showed all the attributes of his rugby league background in what was England’s biggest game for eight years. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
I only started playing centre in 2004. It took until the 2007 World Cup before I felt properly attuned to the nuances of the position and comfortable playing Test matches in the 12 jersey.
Sam Burgess only arrived at a Bath training session last October.
It’s simply not possible for him to be ready. And now we have proof.
Burgess lacks the sense of timing, in attack and defence, required to be effective at international level. His naivety embarrassed those around him and severely damaged England’s chances of reaching the quarter-finals.
Stuart Lancaster picked a league convert who doesn’t know how to play inside centre for the biggest match England have played since the 2007 World Cup final. To compound the problem, Brad Barritt was out of position at 13 and exposed accordingly when it mattered most.
Timing is everything at the elite end of centre play. I quickly realised it was my only way of surviving those European or Six Nations games. I wasn’t big enough to dominate tackles so my entry into the line had to be perfect. I was always trying to avoid a collision and attack an inside shoulder.
I think, for now, Burgess can only be effective alongside Bath team-mate George Ford as they have developed some form of understanding before George’s dad, Mike, shifted Burgess into the backrow.
Even swapping between Felipe Contepomi and Ronan O’Gara was tough because they were different. Equally effective, mind, but polar opposite styles in attack and defensive systems.
Switching back to Felipe after November or the Six Nations always took two games but Michael Cheika would be breathing down my neck. He demanded we click in the first minute of game one.
I had to rewire my brain to read just for or from Rog. That required constant mental rehearsals but true understanding only comes with time.
Felipe would always seek early ball, to see if he could pry open defences by himself, and then offload, while Rog would be glancing up to see if he could make a winger look foolish. No better man to put a spiral over an out of position winger’s head. Both men could use a part of their brain other players didn’t know existed. Hardly surprising that they never got on when playing each other.
By picking Owen Farrell, Burgess and Barritt, England didn’t come to Twickenham to play rugby. We all knew this. For Jonny May’s try – which I will examine in detail – both centres ran straight as decoys.
Never got to the pace
By then the Burgess experiment had been abandoned because the England coaching team accepted, long after everyone else, that he had no idea what was happening around him.
This is the flip side of last week’s column; when attacking from centre, you must catch the ball as flat as possible and the best centres always shift direction at that very moment.
Jean De Villiers is (or, sadly, was) the master of this. Ma’a Nonu is absolutely phenomenal.
All Burgess did was run straight in search of collisions with Jamie Roberts (who obliged but really conned him most of the time).
When Burgess played in the NRL he was so effective because everything was pre-ordained. There is no ruck so he timed the run off the scrumhalf and could get up a 10-metre head of steam and thunder into a player of his choosing. In rugby union there are more variables – rucks, pick-and-goes, the advantage rule – so he only gets three or four metres, and one wrong step forces a break in stride that makes him easier to stop.
His skill-set hasn’t transferred to the position he is playing. Again, it takes time.
Anatomy of a try – part 1 (Jonny May)
Wales set up to make England throw to the front. Usually that means they won’t be able to go wide but this was a pre-planned, multi-faceted move they were determined to use.
So Tom Youngs throws to Parling, on to Ben Youngs, who pops it to Vunipola in the first-receiver slot. The number eight fixes the defence along with Burgess coming short. Roberts steps in for the massive collision that never happens. Again, he didn’t need to and a domino-effect creates space further out.
This could have been stopped by putting more pressure on Farrell to pass earlier. There is space to exploit on the edges of the Shaun Edwards defensive system. Problem is getting there. This is the only time England do.
When Farrell gets the ball, Roberts is miles away and late into the space. It’s a clear defensive error that creates a three-on-two scenario. Farrell throws his next pass over the gainline, not behind it, where Roberts should have smashed him. Barritt fixes Scott Williams as Watson sprints into space. North hits Watson well over the gainline. The offload does go to ground instead of Mike Brown’s hands.
Brown scoops up the ball, skips away from Scott Williams and gets tackled by Liam Williams.
North makes another poor defensive decision by hitting the ruck when he should have been going around the corner and back to the right wing, where May is lurking.
Youngs attacks the short side, draws Scott Williams, and puts May over.
That was the third two-on-one in a single passage of play. Biggar and Lydiate rushed up, the rest of them didn’t.
But it was the only time the Welsh defensive line was fractured.
England needed a second distributor at outside centre to regularly get ball to these Welsh edges (the place where their system leaves space).
Henry Slade proved he could do this in the warm-up match against France, his first cap, when Burgess made his only impression at inside centre. It wasn’t enough for Stuart Lancaster.
Slade has the ability to distribute accurately under high-end pressure. There were three tries by the England wingers that day. He also has a good kicking game.
Six carries for 23 metres was way below what England presumably hoped to get out of Burgess. When they were dominant in the opening 40 minutes, Farrell needed a second pair of hands but all he had was two powerful, straight-line carriers. So they couldn’t get the ball to May or Watson. Bar the try.
Anatomy of a score – Biggar makes it 16-9 on half-time.
37 minutes: Barritt at 13 was a risk that produced scant reward.
He had done well at 12 in the warm-ups but was expected to change his defensive mindset while partnering an inexperienced inside centre. That’s a huge ask. Scott Williams punished that lack of understanding.
Biggar passes the ball 20 metres behind the Welsh lineout, yet Williams was allowed to carry almost 40 metres through the middle of England’s midfield.
Burgess’s lateral movement here is abysmal. Barritt doesn’t notice his centre hasn’t come with him and pushes off to Liam Williams, leaving a gaping hole for Scott Williams to run through.
Roberts easily fixes Burgess with a straight decoy.What makes it embarrassing for a team with aspirations of winning this tournament is the sight of Owen Farrell outrunning Burgess into the space. Farrell couldn’t get across in time to do anything other than paw the Welsh 13 jersey. Barritt and Burgess are aware of the danger now but they have made themselves irrelevant. They turn and sprint after their combined error. It’s a feeling of helplessness.
In those defence-shredding seconds, the English coaches must have realised just how wrong they got their selection. Even when Farrell drifted, Burgess kept coming straight. Barritt needed his 12 to be attached to him but he was either unaware or just a poor defender as he kept drifting onto Liam Williams. Teenagers are coached all of this but Burgess has none of that coaching in his mind’s eye.
Mike Brown tackles Williams just inside the English 22 but doesn’t do enough to convince Jérôme Garcès he has released the man. Advantage Wales. Biggar makes it 16-9 at half-time. Huge.
Now, that will probably never happen to Burgess ever again. The England video session could turn him into a rugby union centre. He’s a phenomenal athlete and clearly a fast learner.
The damning question for Lancaster’s England is: why were these learning curves taking place in the pool of death’s must-win game?
England still should have won.
Anatomy of a try – part 2 (Gareth Davies).
70 mins: Barritt sells everyone up the river by incorrectly reading the play. This was nothing new from Wales. Use a ruck to shorten up the defensive line, quick ball to a pod of forwards in midfield and play it out the back. So it’s Davies to Alun-Wyn Jones and on to Rhys Priestland. Just as Priestland passes the ball, if England wait and hold they can smother this Welsh attack.
Barritt takes two or three steps ahead of Farrell because he thinks Toby Faletau is going to get it but Biggar skips to Roberts.
Barritt is irrelevant now (that horrible feeling, I know it well). Roberts draws Watson to free Lloyd Williams.
The kick through was beautiful. All duck no dinner, the winning or losing of the game, but there was no safe option. Watson had him run down. Brown is there if he steps inside. England would probably turn that over or at least get their defensive line back in shape.
But that’s Wales down through the years. It’s why they have won three Grand Slams since 2005. They trust their creativity to the end.
77.05 mins: Robshaw, and a few others, had a brain freeze. England had time. A draw clearly seemed useless to them in the heat of battle but in hindsight Robshaw is getting slaughtered. Warren Gatland, Joe Schmidt or Steve Hansen would have sent in a clear command that would have been obeyed. Kick your points. They would have got the ball back and it would have been on Wales not to give away another penalty. Gather the restart, build a score.
The All Blacks knew exactly what they were doing in Dublin in November 2013. But to be driven into touch off your own lineout ball, well, it’s inexcusable.
The body language was unmistakable – Wales pumped and belting each other while silent Englishmen looked around for a leader.
England must change their team if they are to beat Australia and then put a record score on Uruguay. The selection errors are glaring now.
First thing they should, but won’t, do is push someone down a stairs and get Steffon Armitage over from France. Their centre partnership, if Jonathan Joseph is injured, should be Luther Burrell and Henry Slade. Of course, that won’t happen either because Burrell didn’t make the squad.
The Burgess gamble wasn’t calculated. Burrell had proved he can do what they hoped Burgess would do.
Australia have their own problems – Quade Cooper is a liability but still threw three of those Simon Zebo passes for tries against Uruguay. The Wallabies can’t win a World Cup with him at 10 but they won’t get out of the pool without him.
Good luck outwitting Cheiks.