Six Nations 2019: Who should England pick at fullback?

mike brown

Eddie Jones is due to name his squad for the 2019 Six Nations on Thursday and, as usual, he has some selection dilemmas. The back row is a bit of a mess (again), then there is the enduring puzzle that is the England centre partnership.

However, the question mark hanging over who will play fullback must also be giving Jones a little twinge in the temples.

Mike Brown was Jones’ initial choice for the 15-shirt when he took over as coach. Brown seemed like the perfect player for Jones: fiery, physical and with a bit of snarl about him. However, earlier this year fans were beginning to tire of the lack of invention in attack – and laying a lot of the blame at the feet (or rather, the hands) of England’s fullback. Specifically, Brown’s tendency to stick his head down and take contact rather than look for space and pass.

Brown’s final start at fullback was in the loss to Scotland in the Six Nations. It is worth remembering that only the week before he had put in a man-of-the-match performance against Wales, something which prompted a stinging rebuke to the media from Eddie Jones: ‘You guys tell me Mike Brown can’t play Test rugby… you guys are unbelievable! You’re always criticising him, now he has a good game you’re all on the bandwagon.’ He then dropped him after the next game.

After a two-game run with Anthony Watson was curtailed because of injury, Jones has since opted to utilise Elliot Daly. It is difficult to assess how successful the experiment has been, but it is probably fair to say Daly has been good, but not great, for England at 15.

Ironically, he probably suffers by comparison to his previous excellent form on the wing for England and the Lions, and also in comparison to Mike Brown. After everyone wanted a more creative and elusive runner to play 15, now we have one, we are criticising him for not being as ferocious in defence, secure under the high ball and indifferent to his personal safety. I.e. all the things that made Mike Brown great.

Daly has definitely brought some sharpness to the England attack; the added space at 15 letting him float behind the line of play and pick lines like this absolute beauty for his try against Australia in the autumn:

However, those moments have perhaps not been frequent enough to compensate. We should accept that there will be a degree of trade-off whoever we select, but are Daly’s better attacking instincts worth the drop in security at the back?

Then there is the complication that Daly does not play fullback for his club, but 13 – a position where many, myself included, think he is best. It is also another position which has not been nailed down for England, Henry Slade the most recent occupant.

Brown, meanwhile, is resurgent. After recently becoming Harlequins’ all-time most capped player, his form is excellent and he seems to have worked hard on those less-than-perfect areas of his game, looking to pass and put others into space more often (see the sublime flick out the back of a tackle to set up a try in the recent win over Newcastle).

It is also worth noting that, alongside his typically stout defence, Brown has made nine turnovers in the Premiership so far this season – the sixth highest number by a player.

So should Jones turn back to the stalwart of his early winning run and reinstate Brown at fullback? If so where does Daly play (if anywhere)?

Out of the left-field, it was interesting to see Jack Nowell playing at 15 for Exeter Chiefs against Castres at the weekend, on his return from the injury. Jones is a big fan of Nowell and values his industry and battling ability to break tackles. He doesn’t have the raw pace of the likes of Jonny May or Daly, but he runs different lines – often cutting back against the run of play or keeping close to breakdowns, using his ability to shift his weight to throw lumbering forwards off balance and scurry through half-gaps. Case and point is this beauty he scored on Sunday:

However, does he have the all-court game to play at 15 at international level however? For what it is worth, Nowell has said he sees himself as an out-and-out winger.

Chris Ashton is perhaps the darkest of horses in this conversation (I never thought I would be discussing him in a debate around England fullbacks). Kicking and defence – such important attributes for a 15 – have never been his forte. That said, in attack he is electric at fullback. There is a reason he broke try-scoring records in the Top14 from that position. His natural ability to shadow the attacking play and pick up the perfect support line is even more potent from 15. Maybe England should just go for broke and pick all their best attacking players, and bank on outscoring their opponents?

The final question is where does Anthony Watson fit in all of this?

Watson was Jones’ first choice to replace Brown but has not played since suffering an Achilles injury in March’s loss to Ireland. He is apparently targeting a mid-Febuary return. Perhaps too late to be included in Jones’ Six Nations, especially since not having played any rugby in nearly a year, he still remains a romantic option at fullback – great in the air, lethally quick and a wonderful counter-attacker, although there will always be question marks over his defensive tenacity. However, realistically, can he work his way back into the England team for the World Cup? It’s certainly a long shot with so many back-three players in good form.

And I haven’t even considered Alex Goode, who is currently leading the Premiership this season in most metres gained (817), most defenders beaten (52) and most try assists (9). He has also made the second-most carries (144). While stats never tell the whole story, I do believe he should be involved in the England squad – however, for whatever reason, he just doesn’t fit what Eddie Jones is looking for from his fullback.

Please vote in this poll and share your thoughts in the comments below.

Who do you want to see playing fullback for England in the Six Nations?

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By Henry Ker

15 thoughts on “Six Nations 2019: Who should England pick at fullback?

  1. If Watson is unfit;

    14 Nowell
    15 Brown
    …with Daly in the 13 shirt.

    Though I admit Daly may be cursed by versatility and may be best on the bench to cover all the bases

  2. I have a funny feeling EJs will revert back to Brown. Maybe his dropping of Brown and trials with Watson and now Daly were just part of his plan to see if there was a genuine better option. Maybe Brown was aware of this? Always a crystal ball situation with Mr Jones!

  3. Has to be Mike Brown in Dublin. Even if Watson was fit.

    I quite liked the Brown-11 / Daly-15 combination.

    The problem with that is that May and Cokanasiga would be my starting wings, so Daly doesn’t fit.

  4. What a great balanced article. Any and all would be superb IMO. I am a fan of May. His speed and strength could make him the pick IMO. He likes to look for work off the wing. At fullback he can interject himself wherever he sees an opportunity. This big lad at speed will take some stopping.

    1. Cheers Peter! I didn’t consider May as an option in the article which is an oversight on my part – he would certainly be a positive attacking choice. I remember when Daly was red carded against Argentina in 2016 and May and Brown covered the back-three between them, interchanging pretty seamlessly – May did a good job then and he also played there a fair bit early in his career for Gloucester

  5. This is easy for me Brown all day long. Great positioning, great under the highball, tenacious and a good kicking game. I also like how he plays direct and sets up a platform for the forwards to keep possession.

    Daly is better on the wing (or centre) and I didn’t think cut it when playing at fullback in the Autumn. I’d have him as a bench option providing cover.

  6. Brown for me, but I would like to see Daly in the starting XV, preferably at 13. Daly is an emotional player and it shows in his play when something isn’t going well such as not owning the high ball battle. Whereas many players who let emotions get on top, it tends to come out in agression and frustration. Daly’s seems to be the opposite and he can go into a bit of a shell, look unconfident and thats how he has seemed to a degree at full back. Take away that concern from him and he will play well. With his pace, rugby nous, kicking game and fact he can put a 3 pointer over from inside his own half having him at No 13 is a no brainer for me.

  7. 11. May, 13. Daly, 14. Cokanasiga (although admittedly this wouldn’t be the form pick), 15. Brown; 23. Nowell (or Tuilagi).

  8. Brown if you want the tried and tested… But I think Eddie’s giving him season off, it’s not so much a dropping of him but a look at our options. If we honestly want to look at someone else I think nowell should be given a go. If Brown injured wc time I think he’s closest likeness and best all round. I think in honesty though we’ll see Daly there for 6nations.

  9. Lots of people saying Daly should play from the bench but he is to good for that and needs to play 80 minutes. If he starts at 13 or 14 doesn’t mean he needs to end the game there as he can switch positions when the bench empties.

    oh yeah and Brown for fullback. We were crying out for Eddie to try out other players there which he has done. None of them have been as good as Brown and he is currently in good form. For me it is a no brainer

    1. For me
      Farrell, May, Teo, Daly, Nowell, Brown
      with Ford & Ashton on the bench in case we need to change it up and play wider

      Remember you don’t have to use the bench i preferred it if substitutions are tactical not just because a player is a little bit tired, most backs can play 80 mins quite comfortably

  10. Who should play fullback? Mike Brown. Who will play fullback? Eliot Daly.. probably. V Ireland, England will need a rock @ the back. They’re away. They will be tested by more bombs than Teresa May’s dropped during her Brexit campaign. If Brown doesn’t do enough in attack (will he, or whoever is @ fullback, get enough ball to do so anyway?), then Jones ought to have coached this into him! However, I don ‘t think Jones has the will or intuition to have done this. He prefers Daly, out of position, instead. Agree, ED ought to be @ 13, but it’s really too late isn’t it, too start chopping & changing now? There’s a WC on! & a 6N to contest almost now! Notions on Nowell, Ashton or May playing @ international level & being ready for either the 6N or WC are surely fanciful @ this late stage.

  11. Another reason to pick Brown is the effect he has on the rest of the team psychologically.His obsession with winning and his bulldog spirit rubs off.

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