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?
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.
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 teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I recently moved back to England and have had to take a break from playing, but I hope to pull on the boots again soon.