Eddie Jones deployed England’s heavy artillery in their 57-14 win over Italy – a wrecking-ball backline featuring the heavyweight trio of Ben Te’o, Manu Tuilagi and Joe Cokanasiga together from the start for the first time. The three backs’ combined weight is more than that of the three heavyweight boxers, Anthony Joshua, Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury.
And the early knock-out duly came, England’s power game tore the Italians apart, securing the bonus point fourth try by the 32nd minute.
The southern hemisphere influence on full display. From the moment Cokanasiga duly collected a cross field chip and flipped it behind his back – Tom Curry unable to hang onto the ball likely due to shock at the cavalier disregard for the way English rugby is supposed to be played – to Manu Tuilagi shrugging off tackles like the defender wasn’t even there, England’s physicality broke the opposition’s spirits as well as their defensive line.
Cokanasiga, just 21 and in his fourth cap, has pace, power and outrageous dexterity. He made 107 metres, five clean breaks and beat four defenders. He even packed down at eight at one point to allow Billy Vunipola to take position in the back line. He is a special player.
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) March 9, 2019
Tuilagi was also not far behind, the best I have seen him play in an England shirt since 2012.
Jones has wanted to explore England’s nuclear option for a while – he was keen to field the midfield pairing of Te’o and Tuilagi at the start of the Six Nations, only for Te’o’s injury to scupper that, while he has publicly bemoaned England’s lack of powerful backs (particularly in regard to wingers) since he took over. Suddenly he seems overloaded with brawn.
It is noticeable that as recently as last summer, on the South Africa tour, England’s midfield three consisted of a combination of George Ford, Danny Cipriani, Owen Farrell and Henry Slade – the heaviest, Farrell, only making it to around the 14-and-a-half-stone mark.
Add to this new trio an abundance of powerful carrier’s in the forwards, such as Billy Vunipola, Kyle Sinckler, Ellis Genge and Mark Wilson – with Mako Vunipola, Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes to return – and England are a different prospect to previous seasons.
Of course, we have to factor in the quality of the opposition and unfortunately Italy are a level below the rest of the Six Nations teams (a caveat for the unpredictable French). That said, the three other teams to have played the Italians have only beaten them by an average of 11 points (although the likes of Wales made extensive changes for their match). England won by a margin of 43.
Jones has all the power he could want – and then some – and given the success of this trial run, should we expect to see this backline again at the weekend against Scotland and then in the World Cup?
I do not think so. For all the obvious advantages of the big backline, and there was a sizeable dose of skill as well as power, it potentially lacked some playmaking vision. Namely the absent Henry Slade.
Other players did step up in Slade’s absence – Kyle Sinckler offered the rare sight of a prop kicking, while Jamie George floated a beautifully weighted double miss pass off his left hand to set up Tuilagi’s second try and Elliot Daly brought incision to the line from fullback – but a second playmaker adds another dimension.
Defensively it was also a little suspect in places. Cokanasiga’s right-hand wing was where Italy scored both their tries, as they pulled the defensive line out of shape and England left too much space. As ever with big players, they can be slow to turn and a sharp pass or deft kick can isolate them. Although Te’o is a fine defender at inside centre, Tuilagi has been known to be a little inconsistent and Cokanasiga is inexperienced; defensive positioning takes time to master. The 13 channel is also the hardest to defend, which is why I like Henry Slade there – an underrated defender and excellent positionally.
This is complicated by the fact that Tuilagi is clearly so much better in attack when he has the added space afforded in the outside centre position. But that is not insurmountable; have Tuilagi switch more regularly with Slade in attack, while utilising Slade in defence at 13. Whatever the number on their backs, get them to play to their differing strengths as the situation and opportunity dictates.
This was a selection to steamroll weaker opposition. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar team take the field in England’s first two games against Tonga and the USA. Like Italy, tier two nations would be unable to deal with this kind of sustained physicality. Even against the better teams in England’s group, Argentina and France, it could be very effective.
But against the likes of Wales, Ireland, South Africa or New Zealand? I think it would be exposed as one-dimensional. Those teams’ defences are a cut above the others, and although they would be tested, would be able to withstand the bombardment.
The perfect blend for me would be a mix of attributes. The hammer of Tuilagi and Cokanasiga, coupled with the rapier of Elliot Daly and Jonny May’s pace, while Henry Slade and Owen Farrell bring the strategy and vision.
This team was also, in part, a response to the Wales game and the lack of a plan B it exposed. This was Jones exploring his options and finding new ways to play, to keep future opposition guessing and unsure about England’s tactical approach more than anything.
If you sit still in rugby you risk going stale, opponents will work out your tactics and a good opponent will find a way to nullify them. What England have done is show a little variety. Come the World Cup, England’s opposition hopefully won’t know whether they will face the precision kicking game we saw against Ireland and France, the runaway freight train of the team that played Italy, or somewhere in between, until the team is announced. And even then, England are hopefully building to a place where they can adapt mid-match, utilise their options from the bench and switch to a different strategy.
As Jones said after the game, ‘In modern rugby you have to have flexibility and going forward to the World Cup you have to have 31 players … You have to be able to use them so we are testing ourselves to see different combinations and find out how adaptable the players can be in different positions.’
But come Saturday and that all important – and potentially title-deciding, should Ireland do us a favour – game against Scotland, I expect to see Henry Slade reinstated at 13, England tempering their brawn and adding a little balance to their backline.
By Henry Ker