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Ollie Lawrence can be England’s best centre – if they learn to use him properly

Ollie Lawrence during England's Six Nations defeat by Scotland/Ollie Lawrence can be England's best centre – if they learn to use him properly
England did not utilise Ollie Lawrence to the full extent of his talents - PA/Andrew Milligan

Before the emergence of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill around six years ago, England were doing a roaring trade in ‘six-and-a-halves’; bruising, industrious back-rowers that were not considered crafty or mobile enough to be labelled as ‘proper opensides’.

Chris Robshaw and James Haskell famously leant into the narrative. The grizzled flankers unveiled specially-printed white jerseys bearing that number after sealing the 2016 Grand Slam in Paris. These days, it seems as though ‘12-and-a-halves’ are all the rage. Or, rather, they are presenting Steve Borthwick with a conundrum.

Ollie Lawrence endured a particularly tough evening as England slipped to defeat in Scotland. Returning from a hip issue for his first game in a month, and his first Test start since Chile were overwhelmed in Lille last year, the 24-year-old struggled to assert himself. His late pass beyond Ben Earl and into touch has been held up as a defining snapshot of England’s poor handling and collective uncertainty in attack:

The contrast in chemistry between the two Calcutta Cup centre partnerships was palpable, and crystallised in Scotland’s first try, when Sione Tuipulotu sent Huw Jones slicing past Lawrence and Henry Slade. Equally, though, there is an argument that England will not develop cohesion there unless they stick with the status quo in midfield.

This makes it more important for Lawrence, a gifted player with enviable assets, to be used in a manner that suits those attributes. And the performances of Bath this season must be the template.

Lawrence’s club have aimed to position Lawrence outside of the 12 channel with players in motion around him in a bid to create a one-on-one. Courtesy of Stats Perform, this is a map of Lawrence’s carries for Bath this season. His influence in the 15-metre channels is obvious:

map
map

Against Bristol Bears in November, this line-out strike was a perfect example of using precise running angles and crisp passing to deceive the defence and give space to Lawrence. Underhill’s pass allows Ben Spencer to run flat with Cameron Redpath threatening, before a pull-back to Finn Russell opens up the pitch. Lawrence can carve off his fly-half’s shoulder and into space:

A month later when Ulster came to The Rec, Lawrence was sent on an outside arc – known as an ‘overs’ line – by Russell’s miss-pass. He fended off Jake Flannery before fixing Mike Lowry and flicking an offload to Joe Cokanasiga:

It is understood that England requested for Lawrence to be fielded at inside centre for Bath in Toulouse, and there was this direct, try-scoring carry from a close-range line-out:

Overall, though, Bath have endeavoured to ensure that Lawrence is not propelled into heavy traffic. They do have scope to do this, with burly back-row carriers such as Alfie Barbeary. Redpath and Max Ojomoh, the latter of whom enjoyed some lovely touches for England A against Portugal at the weekend, are inside centres who can distribute yet also pose a running threat. Bath have Russell, too. His fizzing distribution tends to improve a team’s attack.

Here is Lawrence’s sparse map of carries against Scotland at the weekend:

rugby
rugby

In some respects, he needed to live off scraps, picking up loose balls or linking with team-mates as the game grew fractured. When he darted off Ford’s shoulder and when he was launched in the 12 channel from first phase, Scotland contained him.

The good news, to the credit of Richard Wigglesworth, is that there were hints – albeit faint ones – of England attempting to put Lawrence in similar positions to those which he adopts at Bath. For George Furbank’s try, Lawrence acts as a conventional inside centre. He attacks Earl’s right shoulder and helps to hold Russell close to the scrum. This narrows the Scotland defence as the move is launched:

Later, England run a line-out pattern, but substitute Earl for a hard-running centre off the shoulder of Slade. George Ford and Elliot Daly sweep around in behind. Lawrence is posted wider:

Scotland v England, Six Nations 2024 analysis
Scotland v England, Six Nations 2024 analysis

It is not dissimilar to Bath’s move against Bristol, with Slade acting as an inside centre. England, however, do not get beyond the first obstacle. Slade seems to attempt a pull-back behind Earl to Ford, but the ball is spilled. Earl is perhaps too tight to the first receiver.

Russell had been fixed here, too, so imagine the pass going to Ford with Daly on the arc. Lawrence would have been given a one-on-one:

Ironically, Lawrence was also in a decent position when Furbank dropped Ford’s pass, leading to Duhan van der Merwe’s second try. Furbank and Slade get in the way of one another as they circle Ford:

Scotland v England, Six Nations 2024 analysis
Scotland v England, Six Nations 2024 analysis

Again, had the pass after this gone to hand, England would have had Earl and Lawrence marauding into the 15-metre channel.

Later, on the verge of half-time, Ford sends Lawrence firing over the gain-line with a cut-out pass across the face of Slade that allows its target to run at a weak shoulder. England generate impetus and quick ball, fleetingly:

Borthwick specifically praised Lawrence’s outside break in a January press session and there is evidence of England attempting to use that quality before being derailed by their own errors.

He would be aided by the presence of more keynote carriers, in the forwards or the backs, to deflect the attention of defenders. In the future, we could well see an all-Bath centre partnership of Ojomoh and Lawrence. For now, Slade’s familiarity with blitz defence feels important.

Ominously for England, Ireland are up next. Lawrence faced a centre partnership of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw three years ago. That day, he started at outside centre beyond Ford and Owen Farrell and was a peripheral figure.

If selected on March 9, Lawrence will need to produce an assured and influential performance for England to remotely trouble Ireland. And that will require the team to play to his strengths. 

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