As another RBS 6 Nations begins, we find ourselves no closer than last year to answering that perennially frustrating question: what is England’s best centre partnership? Since 2003, it’s the one selection area that has generated more debate than all others combined, and never more so than in the last year.
Injuries have decimated Stuart Lancaster’s options in the midfield in the build-up to England’s opening game, a gentle introduction to the tournament next Friday night at the Millennium stadium against Wales. Manu Tuilagi remains unavailable while Brad Barritt is unlikely to return in time. Kyle Eastmond is still being assessed but won’t return until later in the tournament at the earliest, while Luther Burrell is hopefully returning from concussion this weekend.
Injuries are a cruel part of sport but the one silver lining is that they create opportunities for others to step in and step up. This time that man is Jonathan Joseph, although his performances dictate that he should get his chance anyway. The Bath centre has been in exhilarating form in both the Premiership and the European Champions Cup this season, as was recognised by his inclusion on the longlist for European player of they year 2014/2015.
Lancaster gave Joseph his first taste of international rugby as a raw 21-year old on the 2012 tour to South Africa, the head coach’s first overseas sojourn with his new group of players, so clearly saw some potential.
But the seasons since have seen the once-precociously talented outside centre experience his own injuries as well as a a dip in form that meant he has accumulated just six test caps, the last of which came in Argentina in 2013 while the Lions were away in Australia.
Now, the stars seem to be aligning – both in terms of his form and the injuries to his competitors – for a return to the England midfield. It is a notion that Lancaster is certainly entertaining.
“I’ve been hugely impressed with him,” said the head coach at the RBS 6 Nations launch on Wednesday morning. “He’s definitely developed as a player. He was involved in my first overseas tour to South Africa and played in some big test matches, as a young player.
“As with most young players, they go through a period of acceleration and opportunity, and then challenges come their way and they sit and reflect. They think ‘I want to kick on now, and get back to where I was’. That has definitely happened with him.”
It would certainly appear that Joseph is back to his best, rediscovering that ability to kick-start his acceleration with an almost goose-step-like motion and ghost on an outside arc around the defender. There are few outside centres that can still count that outside arc as a true weapon in their armoury, but in truth it is not Joseph’s attacking talents that have been in question for England.
Lancaster and his coaching staff have been most impressed with the developments in other facets of his game, notably kicking and defending. This was never more obvious than in the weekend’s Bath vs Glasgow game, when a superb bit of tracking back saw him snaffle Sean Maitland on his way to the line and hold him up to deny a certain try.
“His all-round game now is strong,” notes Lancaster. “He’s got a good kicking game, he’s a good defender, he’s worked hard at his breakdown with Neil Hatley and obviously he’s got a good attacking threat.
“Clearly, he’s going to be an option for us because of the strength of the performances he’s put in week in week out. And it’s not just been the one or two performances in the past few weeks; consistently, since September, he’s been playing well. He’s one of those players that gives you a good selection headache.”
England’s injury issues may just have eased this headache. It’s time for Lancaster to recall the man whom he rewarded with a first cap almost three years ago.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images