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:
TRY TIME ?@elliotdaly with a brilliant try to make it 20-13 to the hosts at Twickenham ?
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) November 24, 2018
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:
Jack Nowell, that is just superb ?
"Footwork. Ability. Acceleration. Power."
Your first European try, in less than four minutes? That's how you make a comeback ? pic.twitter.com/wCWCVKkMAB
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) January 13, 2019
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.
By Henry Ker