When Eddie Jones announced his England training squad last week, perhaps inevitably the focus was all on the one man not there – Danny Cipriani – rather than those picked.
If Jones’ comment that Cipriani was only third or fourth-choice flyhalf felt a touch harsh, given he is technically the incumbent after starting in the final test of the South Africa tour, it is also perhaps understandable. George Ford has been a mainstay throughout Jones’ tenure and has performed admirably, while Owen Farrell is England’s key man, whatever position he fills on the pitch. Farrell also happened to outplay Cipriani on Sunday in the Gloucester v Saracens game, although the performance of the Sarries pack certainly helped in that regard.
Cipriani, despite his sublime early season form, is also perhaps suffering for that Jersey incident in preseason, despite what the England coach says to the contrary. When there is little to pick between players, other non-rugby considerations become a factor.
But that inclusion of Farrell as a flyhalf in Jones’ thinking is telling. Jones has typically picked Farrell at inside centre, only starting at 10 in two out of the 32 games – and in both of which Ford was summoned from the bench after new-look midfield pairings (Luther Burrell and Jonathan Joseph in the first test in Australia in 2016 and Ben Te’o and Joseph against Ireland in the Six Nations this year) failed to fire, with Farrell shifting back to the inside-centre berth.
You suspect Jones has always wanted Farrell as his starting 10, but – like Stuart Lancaster before him – has been hamstrung by the lack of genuine options at inside centre. Farrell makes a better 12 than the best of the rest, despite being in reality a 10. It was a great decision by Jones when he took over, mostly resolving a long-standing conundrum for England, but is it starting to rankle – a compromise Jones is becoming frustrated with making? Sir Clive Woodward is another who believes Farrell should be installed in his preferred and best position.
Jones’ selection of Manu Tuilagi, as well as Ben Te’o, in the squad suggests he may be reconsidering his options – although in Manu’s case, typically, injury seems to have put that idea on hold, at least for the moment. Jones has publicly acknowledged England’s need for more gain-line-breaking power in the backs, and the wrecking ball figure of Tuilagi would certainly offer that (the usual caveat with Manu: if he manages to stay fit). So would Te’o, who I think is definitely better suited to the 12 shirt than the 13, where he has usually played for England in the past. Joe Cokanasiga of Bath could be another option to add some power – although he remains relatively raw.
The fact that Henry Slade, in particular, and also Alex Lozowski, seem to be emerging as genuine options at 13 adds interest. We know the value of twin playmakers operating in the midfield; with the way teams are defending and and tweaks to the game’s laws making space a premium, the ability to move the ball wide quickly is a necessity. But both seem more comfortable in the outside-centre channel than the inside, deceptive turns of pace and graceful running lines making them more suited to the extra space at 13 than the hard yards, fast defence and physicality of 12.
Jones actually ran a three-playmaker axis in South Africa, with Ford (then Cipriani) flanked by Farrell and Slade. While not a disaster by any means, it still felt like all three were a bit similar and, as such, the combination lacked much attacking threat in and of itself – rather a means to getting the ball to the dangerous runners in the back three at the right time.
Another option at 13, the injured Jonathan Joseph, for all his ability, does not offer that playmaking aspect and therefore (when his form demanded inclusion) necessitated a creative 12.
Bringing Tuilagi or Ben Te’o into the backline at 12 and picking Slade or Lozowski outside would add another dimension to England’s backline, giving it some direct thrust and power, while retaining the second playmaker. This would allow Farrell to take his optimum place at flyhalf – and something I think Jones is giving serious consideration to.
Of course, in a perfect world, I would actually have my second playmaker at fullback in the form of Alex Goode, which would allow Elliot Daly to take up his best position at 13 without losing any creative vision. But that’s just me.
What do you think? Should Jones rejig his backline and move Farrell to flyhalf? Or do you prefer Farrell at 12 with Ford or Cipriani in the driving seat?
By Henry Ker