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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.