THE debate over whether the 10-12 combination of George Ford and Owen Farrell is the best trigger for England to develop their attack, in pursuit of becoming the world’s best team, is one that has carried over from the World Cup into today’s England-Ireland match at Twickenham.
It is an encounter which could be decisive in the final outcome of the 2020 Six Nations, as well as deciding whether the Ford-Farrell experiment continues.
My feeling has always been that you do not necessarily need a second distributor at inside-centre, and when Farrell has been selected in his best position at fly-half, picking Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade as a centre combination outside him has proved the point very effectively.
Tuilagi does not distribute as well as Ford, Farrell, or Slade, but he brings an attention-grabbing intensity, because a 6ft, 17-stone missile moving pretty quickly straight down the middle of the field is a menace to any defence.
It’s an old-fashioned view, but it’s one which to my eyes has always fitted England best. It also highlights how dependent England have become on Tuilagi, and how quickly injury and form can change an attacking structure.
It also highlights the lack of depth in positions like inside-centre, when you have players like Farrell playing out of position in order to compensate for the absence of a player of Tuilagi’s influence because of three years of injuries.
The reality is that Farrell is not much of a threat at 12 because he is not quick enough, and nor does he have the physical heft of a Tuilagi, or for that matter, Robbie Henshaw, Jonathan Davies, or Malakai Fekitoa, the Wasps former All Black.
The limitations of the Ford-Farrell partnership is emphasised when Ford, who is normally at first receiver, sometimes switches, allowing Farrell to slip into the 10 channel.
This complicates matters, because Ford has what I call ‘passive pace’ when it is back-on-back in the 12 channel. This means he is unlikely to make a clean break, and it makes the job of the opposition defence much easier.
In straightforward terms without Tuilagi, or Joe Cokanasiga coming in-field off his wing, there is not much threat. You are not overly worried if Ford and Farrell are running at you – whereas they are a very real threat if they can distribute to runners with the power of Tuilagi and Cokanasiga and the speed and elusiveness of Jonny May and Anthony Watson.
It is apparent that at the moment May and Tuilagi are first choices, along with Farrell. However, having a strong inside-centre is the English way, and because I prefer a big centre – whether it’s at 12 or 13 – I would not be afraid to drop Farrell if he was not playing well enough to claim the fly-half shirt.
For instance, if Ford was the form 10, I would be quite happy to see him there with Tuilagi and Slade as the centre pairing outside him. But while Eddie Jones is quick to pull some players off the pitch, he seems very reluctant to do it with big names.
On current form I’d be inclined to have a 10-12-13 partnership of Farrell, Tuilagi and Slade to take on the Irish – and if Slade is not quite match fit, then I would select Jonathan Joseph instead.
One of the big messages to come from this is that England must find another Tuilagi at 12, and damned quick. The inside-centres are either not there at the moment, or Jones cannot see them. Exeter’s Ollie Devoto has been on the bench, but did not get a chance against France or Scotland – although it was understandable at Murrayfield, because the conditions dictated that you needed your kickers on the pitch.
The game against Scotland was a horrible, desperate scrap, but a lot of the forwards can feel pleased with the shift they put in. It was a big improvement on their display against France when they ran around as if they had not just lead, but kitchen sinks and boilers in their boots.
England will still offer a threat with a Ford, Farrell, Tuilagi midfield, because, as a 10-12 partnership Ford and Farrell have shown they can manipulate defences out of alignment. Sometimes it is done so easily that you don’t always notice how good it is, as was the case in the World Cup semi-final against New Zealand.
At its best, Ben Youngs, Ford and Farrell each work behind a pod of forward carriers, and if the ball is quick and clean the opposing defence is kept narrow – and that is when the distributors come into their own to put runners through gaps.
The only problem is that we do not see it very often, and if England do not take the initiative then Ireland are a team capable of attacking strongly and quickly off multiple phases. The Irish did not allow Wales to turn up because they battered them, and Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton know how to make the most of forward momentum.
Centres like Henshaw and Bundee Aki are big enough to run against forwards and win collisions, whereas Ford and Farrell cannot. The Irish back three are also capable of stretching the English defence.
As soon as Jordan Larmour arrived there were comparisons made with Jason Robinson, which made little sense because Robinson is a one-off. However, Larmour has looked good at full-back. He is very quick off the mark, elusive in tight spaces, has genuine pace, and stays low to the ground.
The Irish also have good options on the wing in Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Conway, and Keith Earls.
If England’s back three options were all fully fit then my back three would be Watson at full-back, with May and Cokanasiga on the wings. As soon as Cokanasiga comes back from injury I would play him – he is an enormous threat, so England should let him loose.
There is a weight of expectation on Elliot Daly going into this match, following his return to full-back for the injured George Furbank. Daly has been absent too often, and should have gone looking for the ball more when he played on the wing in Paris.
I do not get a sense of urgency about this England team at the moment. I don’t see today’s game as make or break, but they have to light some fires against the Irish, because to be the best in the world demands more intensity.
I don’t know what to expect from England – but what we do know is that we need more at Twickenham than we have seen so far, otherwise they will come second.