Rising Star - In Ollie Lawrence, Worcester may have found England's next Manu Tualagi
It’s fair to say things aren’t looking too pretty for Worcester Warriors right now.
In addition to well-publicised financial issues that has sent the club searching for investment, the side are currently rooted to the bottom of the Premiership table and have been thrust into a relegation battle with recently-promoted London Irish.
With seven losses from their opening seven games, it has been an ominous start to the season for Worcester, but if there is a silver lining to their current travails, it is that their academy has quietly been producing a host of talented players that could go on to form the foundation of a more competitive side in the seasons to come.
Huw Taylor, Jamie Shillcock, Will Butler, Tom Dodd and Ted Hill have all been catching the eye at various levels over the last couple of seasons, whilst hooker Jack Singleton has already made his England bow against the Barbarians, capitalising on Jamie George’s absence with the British and Irish Lions in the summer and touring Argentina as Dylan Hartley’s deputy.
The next name to add to this list could well be Ollie Lawrence.
The young centre represented England U17s last season and is currently in the last year of his schooling at Bromsgrove, but he has already made his senior bow for Worcester, when he came off the bench in their Anglo-Welsh Cup fixture with Sale Sharks in the opening round of the competition.
He replaced Max Stelling in the 58th minute of the match at Sixways and proceeded to get his senior Warriors career off to a dream start, crossing for a try just minutes later, before setting up teammate Tom Howe to score in the last minute of the game.
His assist for Howe to score was particularly impressive, with Lawrence taking and passing the ball in one swift motion, even as he was being lined up for a big hit by a Sale defender. For an 18-year-old on debut, it was an extremely impressive piece of skill and composure.
The dream debut was soured by Worcester ultimately falling to a 24-21 defeat to Sale, but it was a cameo from Lawrence which should have Worcester and England fans alike salivating at his prospects.
For some time now, England’s age-grades and the Premiership academies have been producing talented centres at a rate of knots. From Henry Slade to Joe Marchant, Nick Tompkins to Ollie Devoto and current prospects like Worcester’s Butler and Harlequins’ Gabriel Ibitoye, many of these centres have fallen into two midfield stereotypes.
You have the secondary playmakers, such as Slade and Devoto, who bring a fly-half’s skill set to the 12 or 13 jersey, and you have the quick-stepping, turn-of-pace men, such as Marchant and Tompkins, who can hurt teams in the open space of the wider channels with devastating outside breaks.
They are the perfect deputies for the likes of Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph in the England midfield, capable of replicating – to a good standard – what those incumbents have been doing for Eddie Jones over the last two years.
What England have failed to produce with such proclivity is the hard-running, physical centre who can break the gain line in the tighter confines and turn a broken tackle into a big gain or a try. From Mike Tindall to Jamie Noon and Brad Barritt to Manu Tuilagi, it was a staple of English midfields for over 10 years.
We are right to heap praise on the midfield partnership of Farrell and Joseph, for it has added dimensions of decision-making, speed of thought and foot and clinical finishing that has not always been there, but there is value to be found in the midfield heavy-hitters.
Martin Johnson, Stuart Lancaster and Jones have all included Tuilagi in their squads as soon as they were able, whether that be giving him his debut and first tastes of international rugby, or bringing him back into the fold as soon as possible after he has recovered from injury or served a suspension.
As for Ben Te’o, he has provided England with punch up the middle in the games when he has come off the bench, something which has been particularly valuable in the games when England’s forwards have not been in their best carrying form, something which often shows up when Billy Vunipola is unavailable.
With Tuilagi and Te’o both currently injured and unavailable for England this autumn, the cupboard, which is fit to bursting in many other positions, has looked particularly bare in this area.
Since Tuilagi came through the age-grades, only really London Irish’s Johnny Williams and Exeter’s Sam Hill have been of a similar mould. Williams is still developing, not to mention the subject of interest from Ireland and Wales – the two other nations that he is eligible to represent – whilst Hill has fallen slightly out of favour at Exeter following the arrival of Devoto, meaning that there is no clear backup to Tuilagi or Te’o as stands.
This is where Lawrence – in a year or two’s time – could come in.
He is incredibly physical for his age, blending speed and strength into a potent mix of power. Combined with a low centre of gravity, this makes him a remarkably tough player for defenders to bring down and like Tuilagi, he has that burst of speed to get away from defences when he breaks a tackle or makes a tackler miss.
Lawrence isn’t a head-down kind of runner, either.
He has the vision to exploit holes and awareness to find support runners, rather than relentlessly taking contact, something which some England backs in years gone by have been guilty of. He has the hands and passing skills to be part of a free-flowing back line eager to put quick width on the ball and he can thrive in that role, but he has the power to generate front-foot ball if the defensive line is doing a good stifling job, whether that be with their line speed or contact area work.
When teams are able to regularly break that gain line and run onto the ball, building momentum as they do and denying defences the opportunity to regroup, rugby is made to look a remarkably easy sport. It’s in this facet where dual-threat players like Lawrence can come into their own.
It is important to remember that Lawrence is still only an U18 player and nothing is carved in stone at this point in a player’s career, but his debut appearance for Worcester certainly went a long way towards reinforcing his credentials to play at a higher level.
There should be plenty more opportunities to see Lawrence this season, with the centre likely to feature further in the Anglo-Welsh Cup and A League, as well as for Worcester U18s once the new year arrives. He was also involved in the England U18s Development Camp last month and could form an exciting partnership with Cameron Redpath at that level this year, although Wasps’ Sam Spink will be pushing hard for inclusion, too.
It’s early days but it is worth putting Lawrence on your radar now. He has all the raw attributes required to be a special player at the next level and as long as he remains focused and keeps improving, there is no reason to fear that he won’t realise his considerable potential.
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