No power centre in South Africa

The recent withdrawal of Ben Te’o leaves England’s squad for South Africa with a problem of balance in the centres. The players who might play there include Owen Farrell, Piers Francis, Elliot Daly, Alex Lozowski, Henry Slade and potentially Jason Woodward. These players have other strengths.

The Barbarians’ recent win over England showed what damage powerful backs like Josh Matavese, Semi Radradra and Joshua Tuisova can do. They were the catalysts for tearing England apart. However, there is another benefit to including that type of player. With a backline that can get over the gain line, the pack don’t require as many ball carriers. Selection can favour other areas of the game, such as the breakdown or set piece.

Without Te’o, England can no longer field a ball carrying centre on this tour. However, the problem runs deeper than this. Despite Te’o leaving a huge hole in the balance of the squad, Eddie Jones called up Piers Francis to replace him. As Blues and Saints fans know, Francis is a 10/12 hybrid, like Toby Flood or Owen Farrell. He is far from a like for like replacement. Why would Jones replace a carrier with a playmaker?

Current options

While they seem to grow on trees in the likes of New Zealand and South Africa, England have a huge problem finding powerful gain line centres. With the exception of perennially injured Manu Tuilagi, who else could come in? One option is to play powerful wingers and ask them to carry in midfield. However, there aren’t many English qualified power wingers either. Nathan Earle is in the squad, and Denny Solomona can carry hard if asked to do so. The tour may show whether either of them can fill this role going forward.

Eddie Jones’ long-term prospects

Some relatively unknown players have been included in Eddie Jones’ squads recently. Many people have criticised the omission of more well-known alternatives. However, I believe Eddie Jones is looking for certain types of player, and one of these includes the backline carrier. None of the following players are ready for Test level just yet, but their involvement indicates the backline carrier issue may be a temporary one.

Perhaps the most exciting power centre prospect is Worcester Warrior Ollie Lawrence. He trained with England for the recent Barbarians game and seems set for a big future.

Gabriel Ibitoye was an England apprentice player during this year’s 6 Nations. He can play 13 or on the wing. Ibitoye is not the biggest, at only 92 kg and not particularly tall, but is able to break tackles and is an excellent defender. He has been involved with the Harlequins first team this year and will star at the under 20 World Cup.

Joe Cokanasiga was on last year’s Argentina tour. He is a 1.92 meter 112 kg monster, who has excellent hands, a wicked step and pace to burn. He became a London Irish regular towards the second half of this season and will move to Bath in the summer to replace Matt Banahan. ‘Fijian Joe’ makes 7.3 carries per game, making 1.2 clean breaks, beating 2.5 defenders and averaging over 6 meters per carry. He also gives 3 passes and 1.2 offloads.

Ben Loader will be going to the under 20 World Cup alongside Ibitoye. Loader is a tall man at 1.88 meters, and at 92 kg has room to fill out. He was included in the recent training squad before the Barbarians game. He also scored a try on his Premiership debut against Bath.

Other potential carrying centres

Jonny Williams is 1.89 metres tall, 93 kg and known for his carrying and offloading. He is moving from London Irish to Newcastle this summer and has long been earmarked as a future international. However, he has not been involved with England under Eddie Jones. Williams is eligible for both Ireland and Wales, and despite starring for England u20s recently, he may decide to pursue opportunities elsewhere if he isn’t included soon.

Exeter’s Sam Hill showed in the Premiership final he is in good form. He is a large man at 1.84 meters tall and 103 kg. Hill makes almost 15 carries a game, often in heavy traffic. He gains 38.5 meters from those carries, generating valuable go forward for the Chiefs. He can also distribute and has good footwork, making almost 9 passes per game and beating 3.5 defenders. Hill was involved in the 2016 6 Nations squad but has unfortunately been plagued by injury ever since.

One left field option could be Mark Atkinson of Gloucester. At 1.98 meters tall and 107 kg, Atkinson is a huge man. He makes 12 carries per game, making more ground (over 42 meters per match) but often in wider channels than Hill. He also distributes more with 13.5 passes on average.

Convert a big playmaker

One option England have is to try and encourage one of their larger playmakers to make more carries. There are two standout options if this is the route Eddie Jones wants to take.

Ollie Devoto is 1.93 meters tall and 102 kg. He has been injured a lot recently but has been involved with recent England squads when fit. The Exeter Chief has very good stats in terms of carrying, but because he has hardly played the sample size is too small to draw much inference from this.

Northampton’s Harry Mallinder is 1.96 meters tall and 108 kg. He led England under 20’s to World Cup glory from fly half. He has also played a lot of senior rugby at 15, which he says is his favoured position moving forward. Eddie Jones is a fan of Mallinder’s potential, and he has won a number of games for Northampton almost single-handedly over the last two years. However, Mallinder is yet to demonstrate the consistency needed to be a regular international. Despite his size, he would also need to develop his ball carrying if he were to fulfil the backline carrier role for England.

Conclusions

England have few options as backline ball carriers apart from Ben Te’o and a fit Manu Tuilagi. It is a weakness going forward, however some of the prospects coming through look quite exciting. Eddie Jones has certainly demonstrated in his selections that he is aware of the problem and trying to bring through players who can resolve it. He has consistently overlooked superior players such as Christian Wade or Ollie Woodburn in favour of selecting players who can fulfil this role.

Author: Daniel Pugsley

I am a 31 year old from Yorkshire, England. I have played social rugby for 25 years in England, Japan, Italy, Poland and the UAE. I play for Abu Dhabi Harlequins 3rds and coach the U6s where my daughter plays. I teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I am new to sports writing, but why should the Quins lads be the only ones to suffer my ramblings!

5 COMMENTS

  1. Dan – great article.
    Eddie really is stuck in the backs. There is no obvious candidate now or in the immediate future to do the ‘hard yards’carrying. Tuilagi (if he ever stays fit and gets a bit more pace and passing skill) and Te’o remain the only realistic international class options. So for this tour I would rely on the forwards and that means getting some pace and power into the pack.
    With M.Vunipola/George/Sinckler/Itoje(now that he has begun to carry with real venom and B Vunipola as a minimum, Eddie has a pack stuffed with ball carriers. Launchbury (if fit), Shields/Simmonds are also ball carriers; albeit Simmonds is more effective wider out. With Curry and Shields or Simmonds you also get pace to the breakdown. I really think it is time for Eddie to ditch Robshaw; he doesn’t bring enough points of difference to the back row.
    In addition Eddie needs to develop an alternative strategy to the one he favoursa with a big ball carrying centre. He needs to build a quick witted, inventive, skilful backline that looks to beak down the opposition through artistry and skill (bring anyone to mind?). So, in answer to the lack of a big back able to carry the ball and make hard yards I would make the following my first test team:

    15 Daly
    14 Solommona
    13 Lozowoski
    12 Farrell
    11 May
    10 Cipriani
    9 Youngs
    1 M Vunipola
    2 George
    3 Sinckler
    4 Itoje
    5 Launchbury/Hill
    6 Simmonds
    7 T Curry
    8 B Vunipola

    If we don’t try some of these players and some different positions we will not learn if they are of International class. Let’s not forget that South Africa are in transition and missing some of their top players too – despite the relaxation on selection criteria.
    It is now or never for Eddie – can Simmonds play blindside, can Curry be our answer to breakdown issues, is Sinckler the scrum foundation and ball carrier we all hope he can be, is Daly the answer at Fullback (I believe he can be), but probably most importantly is Cipriani the best attacking Flyhalf in England.
    We need to win the series but we also need to answer some fundamental questions too!

  2. Thanks Andrew. I agree with most of your points and I think it’s a pretty exciting selection too. We absolutely have to see that back row of yours at least once this tour, and Cipriani has to start a test at 10 alongside Farrell with Daly 15. This is as close as England can come to the Wasps back line setup where Cipriani, Gopperth and Le Roux tear teams to pieces by forcing defences to make about 5-6 choices every time they shift the ball along the line. We have to find out if it can work at international level.

    The one caveat I have is the need for at least one back who can run over the top of people. The All Blacks almost always pick 2. When England don’t have that we can place Simmonds wide on one side but who goes on the other? Itoje or Curry maybe? That also takes 2 quicker forwards away from resourcing ruck ball. As you say, that’s the only option on this tour now.

    On the other hand if you don’t have that power runner wide out, then you become predictable. Your only threat for getting over the gain line is limited to punching up around the ruck with heavy forwards or going around the edge of teams. You can’t do both at once so the defence can start narrow then drift across. They don’t have to make decisions so it prevents your play makers manufacturing line breaks and it cuts down space for anyone to get over the gain line with footwork instead like Jack Nowell does.

    The powerful wider carrier can straighten and win a collision for you somewhere around the 13 channel, keeping you moving forward so you are maintaining momentum for the next phase. Defenders have to set earlier for the big collision too, so the threat of that guy breaking can create more space for the other backs. Defences can’t focus exclusively on your big forwards because you can threaten all along the line so they have more decisions to make and suddenly the attack is working again. Long term I just don’t see how England can manage without a player or 2 who can do that.

  3. Dan – agree completely with the need for a big ball carrier in the backs. However, without Tuilagi or Te’o not on tour we don’t have any options. Unless we play Earle, who has had to leave Saracens to get a regular starting spot at club level.
    Long term, there are options on the wings with Earle and the ex-London Irish winger whose name escapes me for now and Tuilagi or Te’o if they can regain Internations levels of fitness and pace.
    I am more concerned with seeing if Cipriani can light the blue touchpaper in the backs, getting the back row balance right and to see if Sinckler can be that dominant tighthead that dominates at Scrum time but has the power and energy to be a destructive but skillful ball carrier (a carbon copy of Tad Furlong). If we get this sorted on this tour then it will have been a success. The backline combinations may need to wait until Autumn to nail down when hopefully we can put out a backline with Daly at Fullback, Watson and Nowell on the wings, Tuilagi and Farrell at centre and Cipriani and Youngs at half back. That would be uber exciting to see in action.
    I don’t see the need to panic just yet, Eddie has a number of tweaks and changes of team personnel still left up his sleeve to make the Six Nations just a bad memory rather than a sign of decline. He needs a defense coach and fulltime attack coach, Shaun Edwards should be snapped up for defence immediately!

  4. Hi Daniel – having seen the SA game and post the first 20 when SA defended like Wasps U- 16s the day after drinking cider, England’s continuing problem was the breakdown and the lack of forward athleticism. No backline in the world (except my Wasps…) can win many games off damn all ball.

    However, your point is a good one, your list of players is complete, my favourite under played (mainly injured) are Hill and Devoto who if 12 and 13 negate the need to look at what are presently under developed players (mainly) and would allow a more dynamic back three (Watson, Wade and Daly?) It would also allow England not to have to play Farrell, with that sort of mid field muscle the mercurial Danny might be a great option! (I can dream)

    According to a blog I read, EJ tends to have favourite players, ones for whom form is not important, and tends to try and fit players to a strategy rather than form one suitable for the players available. This was alleged what ended his time at Sarries. But whatever the issues, a very experienced England backline was made to look bad by a SA backline including 3 players on debut (one did have 3 mins as sub) and reliant on two Prem players – so no surprises.

    Eddie has now presided over quite a decline, I’ve got beyond selecting teams as I’m not convinced the line up is the issue. I guess we’ll see Saturday!

    • Hi Mike, I really fancy trying out the Wasps attack with Daly in the Le Roux role, Farrell for Gopperth and Robson/Cipriani running the show. I actually think it was the speed of ball not allowing England time to realign, and forwards defending too close to each other that allowed SA to outflank us. It exposed Slade and Brown who aren’t as quick as Le Roux and the SA wingers. I don’t blame them though, there’s not a lot they could do. I just think the pack got outworked.

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