There is no doubt in my mind that there is plenty of skill, pace and power present in the English backline.

England are a team that possess players that have the potential to be world class, and truly impact the rugby world. However, this does not mean that they are a complete backline. If anything they are far from it, and there are multiple reasons why.

Cracks

Eddie Jones in the week illustrated his opinion, stating that “Defeats are beneficial, success just papers over the cracks”. This Six Nations has now amplified where some of the cracks are in the England team. And how large the cracks are now as England’s results have begun to swing in the other direction.

A large issue for England currently are the players that are available at the outside-centre position. The two players most affiliated with the role of thirteen are Jonathan Joseph and Ben Te’o. Both are no doubt excellent players and were chosen to go on the Lions tour for a reason. However, this does not mean they have perfected their game.

Ben Te’o

Ben Te’o is a powerful, ruthless ball carrier with a quick step and slick offloading abilities. Yet, despite this, he has failed to have an impact for England in this Six Nations as it approaches the final weekend. A reason as to why he has not performed the way he did last year for the Lions and indeed in England’s last Six Nations campaign is partially down to the changes to the way the game of rugby union is now played.

Jamie Roberts was dropped from the Wales setup as Warren Gatland wanted to change the way in which Wales, especially the backline threatened the opposition defence, even if it meant losing a well-rounded Test match player.

Ben Te’o has had these issues in this years Six Nations, emphasising how the way rugby is played has changed. Rather than punching holes and constricting the opposition defence, he has been left running into a wall of defenders isolated. This has prevented England from gaining quick ball in key positions. Although Bundee Aki is a similar player in terms of stature and ability, Ireland prefers to use him as a decoy runner and sometimes the first receiver. This allows for a simple wrap-around play that often enables players like Jacob Stockdale or Keith Earls to run down their respected wings.

Ben Te’o is capable of this, yet he is used in a one-dimensional manner that offers little innovation or desire to get over the gainline.

Ben Te’o
Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Jonathan Joseph

Jonathan Joseph has chinks in his game much like Te’o, however for different reasons. Joseph is more of a skill-based outside centre than Te’o, with more agility and a faster step than most centres in world rugby. He also has the ability to be a decoy runner and have excellent passing capability which he often shows for Bath.

Despite this, a prevalent issue in Joseph’s game and the way he attacks is that although he is able to break the defensive line with his turn of foot and hot-step defenders, he is unable to force the opposition wingers and fullback to make a decision. Therefore he is largely unable to manipulate the pendulum defence. This also means that he is unable to manipulate space out wide, and give wingers like Jonny May or Anthony Watson free reign to score a try. Centres from other parts of the world, like Anton Lienert Brown and Ryan Crotty of New Zealand are more than capable of doing.

The way Joseph plays does not give him many options when the opposing team are on attack, or when England are operating with little or no momentum. This means that a stout and aggressive blitz defence that is used commonly by Ireland can immobilize his attacking game. And an extremely well-drilled cover defence such as the one employed by Scott Robertson and the Crusaders can prevent Joseph from scoring tries or allowing his wingers to score tries. This is because the Crusaders defence will have already anticipated a line break and their wingers will be marking out wide. Preventing Joseph from being able to pass the ball without an interception.

Jonathan Joseph
Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Depth

Another big problem that England currently have is the depth they have in the centre positions. It is not because they lack any skill or talent, but because most if not all of England’s back up centres virtually play the same game. This was amplified in the most recent Autumn Internationals when England’s centres and backline were unable to manipulate the other team’s defence until the last fifteen minutes of the game.

For example, when England played Argentina, Henry Slade and Joseph were the centre partnership, and up until the last fifteen minutes, England’s attack was sluggish and there was little to no creativity from a backline that is designed to be creative. The same issues appeared when England played against Samoa, where the centre partnership of Alex Lozowski and Henry Slade were mediocre. This was because both players were looking to play people into space and pass the ball, rather than take the ball to the line themselves and force the opposition defence to make a decision, hence making England’s attack predictable and flat.

England v Ireland

England plays Ireland on Saturday, and if Joseph or Te’o do not find a way to develop their game swiftly, England could be staring down the barrel at a third successive defeat in this year’s Six Nations. And a first home defeat in the Six Nations since 2012.

Summer tour

After this, England must then travel for a three-match test series in South Africa. Against some of the most powerful and explosive players on the planet, excited to win and improve under a new coaching staff. I have no doubt England will find this gruelling if they are unable to fix their problems in the centre.

Fundamentally, however, England could have the most depth at the centre position than anyone else in the world, but if those centres are unable to vary their game and the way they influence the game, then England may not go as far as they would like in next year’s Rugby World Cup.

Author: Luke Wheeler

How can someone only truly start watching and loving the game of rugby three years ago and want to base their life around it? I’m not too sure but that is exactly what happened, and I’ll never stop loving the great game.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent insights and very well explained with some things I’d not thought of e.g. not forcing the wing to make a decision (more detail on that point would be great!) I talked about the English centres above and below the line on the Balanced Team thread, but you’ve painted a proper picture.

    For the record, my England partnership is Te’o and Slade. I think Slade will create chances for his outsides if he has a big line breaker inside him.

  2. Great article Luke, have been racking my brain thinking of alternatives in the prem to teo/Joseph and can only really come up with Tuilagi(if ever fully fit). I really wish Matt Tomua was English as he is a proper 12 who can play 10 rather than a 10 pushed out to 12 like Farrel/Lozowski/Francis. I think England benefit from a hard carrying 12 closer to the pack to allow them to hit brumby mode much easier as detailed in Conor’s articles, a play making 13 or 15 can then split the field with the 10 or force defensive decisions on front foot ball. We just need to find an inside centre who can pass as well as bosh!

      • Tuilagi would work, if he keeps fit. But he needs to add an X factor to his game like SBW has, because a big ball carrying centre doesn’t necessarily work in today’s game if he doesn’t have a consistent slick passing game.

        • A fully fit Tuilagi has the power to drive forward allowing support to arrive, he can offload over the gainline, has fierce acceleration if put into a gap and has a good enough pass to find a supporting paceman. That is the frustrating thing about his injuries. Any oppo that has to worry about big Billy close in and manu in the centre channels is going to leave gaps out wide for Watson, Daly and co.

  3. Good observations, Luke. Remind me of the last time England didn’t have issues in the centers? That, alongside backrow balance/lack of openside, seems to be the areas that just will not stop plaguing England.

    As JD Kiwi noted above, Te’o and Slade seems to offer balance in the centre with play making and gain line aggression. Shame Slade got injured when EJ made his first squad – we may well have seen him as a permanent fixture by now. Possibly.

    Why do you think JJ fails to force the defending winger to make a decision? I’ve been a JJ apologist since he started, but I can tell there’s some issues with him there, I just haven’t the eye to stop it properly yet.

    Thanks mate 🙂

  4. So the same question for me, is the way the centres are playing per instructions from the England coaches as watching virtually every televised Premiership and Euro game, that’s not the way the centres are used for their clubs, least not as noticeably.

    There seems, probably rightly at international level, a need for players who are great defenders. I’ve always thought and certainly when I was playing, that defence is easier to “teach” and the collective is as important as the individuals.

    But looking at Te’O and JJ, I’ve seen their form look flaky at club level this season, which is not the best platform for international rugby, JJ does organise defence well, but appear to have lost the confidence to make the small breaks that release the back three.

    Other players: Slade generally plays best for Exeter at 13, and has not really had an injury free run there for England. Loz is quite inexperienced, probably caught between being a 10 and 12, again only had the odd game and Daly, a 13 by choice an one who definitely doesn’t run into contact (for Wasps) and at club level tries to free a v quick back three, has not been given much of a look in.

    But regardless of who you pick, if they are being coached by England to play as you describe, then it matters less who the personnel are.

  5. Very surprised no-one is mentioning Daly at 13. That’s where he plays for his club and he’s our best back along with Faz. He offers way more than JJ in terms of distribution and kicking and has a great rugby brain. JJ has done very little in attack for a long time now and Teo is a 12 so play him there and use him as the Lions did in the summer. Would also like to see Slade given more of a chance.

    • You raise a good point and I’m genuinely curious as to why Slade hasn’t even been featured in the England 23 at all this Six Nations, especially if no one’s irreplaceable as Eddie Jones always says.

      • Slade was injured Luke but he played for Exeter a couple of weeks ago and so presumably is fit. I was very disappointed to see him cut from the squad a couple of days ago. If we are going to play an exciting running back 3 we need someone to get the ball to them which is hardly JJ ‘s forte. I guess Eddie may have felt it was too many changes in one go but JJ has been unconvincing for a long time now.
        Daly seems to suffer from being multi-talented. I heard Lynagh say recently he should be full back. Lynagh also said he was England ‘s best back. So play him where he can have most impact at 13!!

        • I really like the idea of Daly as a full back- he’s the type of player who always seems to have a lot of time on the ball, plus could come into the line to attack as needed. He’s got a better boot and brain than Watson Imo as well.

          Would love to see a centre combination of Manu (if fully fit) and Slade, with Nowell and Watson/Roko on the wings

  6. The game has moved away from the big ball carrying 12 and EJ has not adapted. JJ is a great player as is Slade. Real problem is no attacking coach, not the players. Daly enjoy more space on wing. Ford is best 10. Is inhibited by Farrell, who defensively suspect. England play well when Farrell is not in the team.

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