Fly-half is just about the most important position on the rugby pitch. Normally charged with the kicking duties, he also has to boss the back-line and make the important decisions. What the players do outside him largely depends on whether he decides to pass, kick or run.
England's three options in this position throw up an intriguing debate. Each has their merits and faults, but which is the most likely to bring success for the national side?
Toby Flood, of the Leicester Tigers, is very much the elder statesman of the group, with 53 caps to his name. Despite the obvious experience this grants him, it is a stat that is often levelled at him as an accusation. To some critics, he has never nailed down the shirt despite the obvious opportunities he has had.
This is somewhat of an unfair argument, however. He may have amassed a respectable number of caps, but in reality he has never been granted a decent run of games to put some form together on the international scene. Be it through injury or a change in position, he has frequently been ousted after just a couple of games. On top of that, he began his career very much in the spectre of a certain Jonny Wilkinson, only getting his chance when the golden boy of English rugby was injured. He deserves a longer stint in control of the shirt, but that seems unlikely to happen now.
Owen Farrell is the man in possession of the jersey at the moment, and perhaps ironically the man with the most obvious limitations. His attacking game is streets behind that of the other two players - think about how often you see him make a clean break, or throw an audacious over-the-top pass.
Admittedly, his temperament and calmness under pressure are admirable. The way he steered Saracens to victory against Racing Metro recently was astonishingly cool for such a young man. Wilkinson himself would have been proud.
Gloucester's Freddie Burns is the third, and most risky option. But this risk could yield a high level of reward also. Easily the most gifted of the players, Burns' attacking flair marks him out as surely the one to back for the future. He has an ability to see a gap that Farrell can't match, and if Flood can he certainly doesn't have Burns' acceleration to make sure he gets through it.
Burns' prowess with ball in hand is well documented. What has been most impressive this season, however, has been his game management and kicking. Previously a bit flaky, and prone to missing costly kicks, he has proved that he can deal with the pressure by knocking over some important conversions and penalties this season. His overall Premiership percentage is 80%, equal with Farrell.
His decision making, in terms of when to run or throw the speculative pass and when to sit back and pin the ball into the corners, has come on leaps and bounds. He still makes mistakes, but the raw talent he possesses is in danger of being wasted if he isn't given a chance soon.
So, Farrell is the man in possession of the shirt and is likely to hang onto it for the beginning of the Six Nations, due to the 'credit in the bank' he has after the New Zealand performance (despite not actually playing that well in a team that put in its best performance in recent times). If Farrell is to start, Burns must be on the bench. They are polar opposites in terms of style, and that could very much work in England's favour if a game needs to be changed.
Farrell's limitations make him a controversial choice as the man to back for the future. The only thing he does better than the other two is tackle. Defensive abilities are perhaps not what England should be selecting their fly-half on. Put it this way - if we were talking about New Zealand, would Owen Farrell really be selected ahead of Burns? The dynamic, all-court game they play begins and ends with their fly-half, Dan Carter. Owen Farrell will never be Dan Carter.
Freddie Burns might be though. If not as good, he certainly has the potential to bring a new dimension to England's attacking game. The most sensible option for now, seeing as Burns only has one cap off the bench to his name, would be to start Flood, who is still a threat on the gain line, with the young Gloucester playmaker on the bench.
One suspects, thought, that Stuart Lancaster's loyalty, while at times admirable, will mean that for now he will continue to back the more conservative Farrell and deprive England fans of the exciting rugby most of them want to see.
- Sports & Recreation
- Freddie Burns
- Owen Farrell