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.


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.


  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.

  5. After watching the South Africa Series it just seems like selection has simply been off and Eddie must ask some serious questions of selection. One can appreciate Ford and Young’s at 9 and ten but what if the Wasps nine and ten had been selected this whole time. Robson must be considered going forward. It is obvious Farrell is the obvious choice at inside center but then what do you do at outside center and it appears to me that if Daly would be selected there that may be what best fits there. He found tremendous success there for the wasps and Sam Hill would be interesting there! I love Henry slade but he may be best at inside center within Eddie’s system! Jack Nowell should be looked at as an outside center as well! Every time that man carries the ball he gets on the front foot. Is is clear Johnny May needs to be a wing and Watson has demonstrated he is one of the best wings in the world when healthy but what about Ashton? Another player who must be considered is Goode at fullback! Did we see what he has done for Saracens through the years! Brown is a good player but Goode is just simply one of the most dynamic players in the world! Selection is clearly everything and it is time to consider players that have not been truly considered before!

    Going forward it would be incredible to see:

    9. Robson
    10. Cipriani
    11. Ashton
    12. Farrell
    13. Daly
    14. May
    15. Goode

    21. Spencer, he is outstanding
    22. Slade, although would love to see Nowell here
    23. Brown


    • Hi John, I think the run of losses made Eddie more cautious than he needed to be, especially at 9. I thought the second test was the time to start Dan Robson, with Ben Spencer starting the 3rd. We know exactly what Ben Youngs can do but we need to see where Robson and Spencer stand. On the positive side Tom Curry is now a nailed on starter at 7. Daly has 3 tests at 15, Jamie George has 3 more starts, and Mike Brown has to most people’s surprise shown he can do a job on the wing. Danny Cipriani has nailed a spot in the 23, and I think he will get a chance in November to make a claim that is should be a starting one. I thought Henry Slade went ok but hasn’t nailed down the 13 shirt. I’d like to see Lozowski given a run and he should have at least come on for Slade in each test. Ashton isn’t available and I don’t think he’s going to leave Toulon any time soon.

      Alex Goode is a strange one. I think Eddie Jones has changed his mind about the 15 role, but neither concept suits Goode. At first he wanted a Mike Brown type player to cover for the defensive system using high line speed with the full line. Then when that system changed he wanted a Stuart Hogg/Willie Le Roux type player to come into the line and threaten with footwork around the 13 channel. He looked at Anthony Watson but injury cut that short. Now Elliot Daly has had a run. Brown at wing is a short term fix because Eddie likes a physical, high work rate winger and needed someone who could get back and help Daly with positioning and defence. I think Jones is leaving the 13 slot open for a power runner so I think his (not necessarily mine!) dream WC backline is 15 Daly, 14 Watson, 13 Tuilagi, 12 Farrell, 11 Nowell, 10 Ford, 9 Youngs. Cipriani and Joseph on the bench.

      • That back line is definitely Jones 1st choice for RWC. Think his problem is that he cannot change from that plan and hasn’t got the personnel to change like for like.
        There aren’t enough, ‘in his opinion’, for the ball carrier centre. It is this issue that is defining his choice of back 5 in the pack. Hopefully, Te’o gain regain full fitness, and Devoto and Hill start to show potential again for Exeter, as back 3 have plenty of options, and 10/12 also have many good options.

  6. I do want to make a comment on the pack and again talk about selection.

    Mako is one of the best looseheads in the world even if he is not the scrummager Joe Marler is but I do think marler is to Mako as McGrath is to Healy and that means England can win with both of them but because of limited ball carriers you must start Mako, Sinkler, obviously Vunipolo or Hughes. The 5 to 3 mix of ball carriers to support players as I define it is tough to come by for England it is why I love at this point Simmonds at 6 and Cowan Dickie at 2. The problem is they will struggle in the lineout because curry and Simmonds are not special in the lineout jumpers but they bring things in other places but is this where Shields come into play at 6 but I do not believe he is enough of a ballcarrier and really means you have to pick Cowan dickie at hooker as a result! Here is the England pack could have been for the series

    1. Mako
    2. Cowan Dickie
    3. Sinkler
    4. Itoje-support
    5. Launchberry- support
    6. Simmonds
    7. Curry- support
    8. Hughes or Vunipolo

    It meets the 5 to 3 scenario

    The bench is

    16. George
    17. Marler
    18. Coles
    19. Kruis
    20. Shields


    • Hi John, here’s how deep I see England’s trusted players pecking order, and what I think Jones is after at the moment.

      4x Mobile Loose head prop – Mako, Marler, Genge, Hepburn (I agree)
      3x Set piece Hooker – Hartley, George, LCD (I would swap LCD and Hartley)
      3x Set piece Tighthead – Cole, Sinkler, Williams (I would swap Cole and Sinkler)
      2x Big Lock – Launchbury, Kruis (a shame we didn’t see Jonny Hill to add depth here)
      2x Mobile Lock – Itoje, Lawes (Isiekwe dropped off this list during the tour)
      4x Lineout 6 – Robshaw, Shields, Lawes, Itoje (Isiekwe drops off the list, I would add Armand)
      2x Traditional 7 – Tom Curry, Sam Underhill (I disagree about Underhill being there)
      2x Big 8 – Billy V, Hughes

      Any player who doesn’t fit those categories, such as Sam Simmonds, is going to have to be so good they are worth changing the system for. I think if you pick LCD and Sinkler you have 3 carriers, meaning 1 lock and the 8 gives you that balance. For me that means Lawes ahead of Itoje too (sacrilege for many but I think Lawes is a better player right now).

      • Good thoughts Dan, I agree on pretty much all of them. One thing though.

        Underhill is pretty much a stop tackler, it doesn’t matter who runs at him. they’re going backwards, and faster than anticipated after the Wales game. I think he could do a job for us at 6. As by all accounts he’s been doing skills work for the past couple of months per Blackadders orders to improve his ability in the transition zone for link man work.

        But, can he be developed as a lineout option?

        Personally I love the look of Simmonds at 6, fast, powerful, great handling and can really do damage for us in the wide channels. But due to his position as 8 for Exeter, not known as a lineout option.

        I just think we retain Robshaw who is always solid, but never really breaks the line or makes signficant yardage. Due to his workrate and lineout options, where we could bring Simmonds/Underhill in whom both could offer more in significantly different ways.

        What do you think?

        P.S: Willis and the Curry twins for our Long term 7’s? All Young, and all already brilliant over the ball. By god we seem to have finally unearthed some Jacklers, talk about buses.

        • 100% mate! Three outstanding proper 7s, and I am excited that Willis could fit the 6 role as Jones wants it while still being amazing over the ball. I just suspect Jones thinks Underhill can be a 7 and like you I think he is a Joe Worsley style stopper 6. Which as a non jumper means he doesn’t match the 6 role in England’s system. I’d personally put him in with Simmonds as trusted misfits who you know can come in and do a job when the players who dovetail better with the system aren’t available.

  7. I believe we can play Lawes at the Big lock position then we have the greatest defensive team in covering the field we can play with a big 8. Then

    1. Mako
    2. Cowan Dickie
    3. Sinkler
    4. Lawes
    5. Itoje
    6. Simmonds
    7. Curry
    8. Vunipolo
    16. George
    17. Marler
    18. Cole
    19. Kruis
    20. Hughes

    Starting Coles is still an option to get the supports role correct but simmonds is capable of both!

    • Hi John, I want to try out Lawes and Itoje as a combination and see if it works too. I suspect not, but we don’t know yet. I also really want to see Simmonds play 6, but that would put a lot of strain on the lineout so I suspect Simmonds and Curry would both need to develop in that area before Jones is willing to try it. Your selection is very athletic and if it works it could be scarily good. 7 carriers with a variety of styles, 2 fetchers and a decent set piece, there’s a lot to like!

  8. Like any team sport, combinations are vital for a complete team.
    I personally think having split playmakers in the back line creates better options, you often see a runner off the 1st receiver and the 2nd playmaker much deeper.
    With this in mind my team would be
    9 Robson
    10 Cipriani
    11 May
    12 Te’o
    13 Lozowski
    14 solomana
    15 Daly

    Then the pack needs to be balanced with power, technique, speed and line out options.
    The back row should be a blend of a scavenger/Jackal who is always in the face of the opposition, a line out option, a big ball carrier and a link player, someone who could play in the backs type of player.
    The locks need to have a big ball carrier and a round the pitch player
    Hooker needs to be able to throw well and also, depending on the props, be a big ball carrier or a continuity player.
    My pack would be
    1 Vuniploa
    2 Hartley
    3 Williams
    4 Itoje
    5 Launchbury
    6 Shields
    7 Simmonds
    8 Billy


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here