It has not been easy going for Jonathan Joseph over the past season or so. Given the briefest of opportunities in the toughest of circumstances on England’s tour to South Africa last summer, he has since struggled for form and fitness, suffering a series of inopportune injuries that have kept him from a decent run of games.
“Individually it’s been a bit frustrating – I’ve had a lot of niggles, and my form’s not been too great, but I’ve been working hard on it,” he admits. Part of a London Irish team that were in danger of being relegated for large parts of the season, it has been a tough year. Nonetheless, Joseph is keen to remain positive. “It got off to a bad start team-wise, but then come the new year, all the home games we’ve had I think we’ve won and that’s obviously a massive positive for us. There were a few games where we left points out there, which we should have won, but I think our heads were up for the latter part of the year, and the way we’ve tried to play has been a lot better.”
The season actually began in fine fashion for Joseph and Irish, as they won the JP Morgan Sevens series. Joseph was last week named sevens player of the year at the Aviva Premiership awards, and is effusive in his praise for the JP Morgan tournament.
“It’s a massive stepping stone,” he says. “For players coming through the academies, it’s a great opportunity to play some rugby at the highest level, and get used to the way things are run. It’s great for them to play in front of a crowd and get used to the professional game.”
Now, however, Joseph has the impending England tour of Argentina to occupy his thoughts. His England career to date has been hindered by many a setback, comfortably the biggest being the presence of Manu Tuilagi in the team. Such are Tuilagi’s unique talents that, even when not at the top of his game, it is very difficult to justify dropping him. With the giant, Samoan-born Leicester centre away on Lions duty this summer, however, the opportunity for Joseph to assert his claim on the England 13 shirt is one he knows he must seize with both hands.
“It’s always an opportunity – when you’re in an England shirt everyone’s watching, aren’t they?” he says. “It’s always that chance to put your marker down, so that’s what everyone’s going to be trying to do.” He does not quite say it, but he must know that Tuilagi’s absence this summer hands him certainly his best chance to step out of his rather large shadow.
He is under no illusions about the challenges that lie in wait in Argentina, either: power, power and a bit more power. “I’ve never played them before, but they’re big and they’re tough,” he declares. “I imagine they’ll be fairly similar to South Africa. It’ll be a huge challenge – it’s going to be very physical, but we’ll go to take them on and we’ll see what happens.”
His competition for that outside centre berth on the tour will be Saracens’ Joel Tomkins, a man who has arguably had a stronger season in the Premiership, but does not have the same experience of the England set-up as Joseph. While Tomkins is a fairly direct runner, with excellent hands a dangerous ability to offload, Joseph’s game is more centred around his quick feet and dazzling acceleration. And as a squad teeming with youth, Joseph’s season around the senior squad almost makes him an elder statesman.
He sets off for pastures new next season, as he begins his adventure at Bath as part of a young and exciting back-line. Indeed, we may even see Bath’s potential centre combo for next year take to the field in Argentina. That Eastmond-Joseph axis is devilishly exciting, and Joseph is understandably excited about playing in a new, exciting environment.
“I think it was time for me to move on,” he says. “I’ve been at Irish for quite a long time now, and I’m just looking forward to the new challenges set at Bath.”
For now though, it is England occupying his thoughts. It would be great for all England fans to see Joseph leave his injury and form issues behind him and get back to his best in the white jersey. His opportunities may have been limited so far, but with no giant, Tuilagi-shaped barriers in his way this summer it’s just possible that we might see more of those dancing feet and fearsome acceleration that helped him make a name for himself as one of the most potent outside centres in the land. Here’s hoping.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
The J.P. Morgan Premiership Rugby 7s Series kicks off at Gloucester on Aug 1 with rounds at Franklin Gardens, Allianz Park and the final at The Rec on 9th August.
For tickets and more info visit: www.jpmorgan7s.com