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By Jeremy Guscott
IT is interesting that Jack Nowell is now being talked about by Eddie Jones as an outside-centre, especially as he still has Henry Slade and Alex Lozowski in the England squad. The England coach also has Jonathan Joseph and Elliot Daly as main options at 13, and Owen Farrell at inside-centre.
Add Ben Te’o and Manu Tuilagi to the troop of centres when they are all fit, and there will be no shortage of competition for midfield places. However, if I am Slade or Lozowski I would be thinking, ‘please try me rather than Jack’.
If you want a passing game and the ball to continue down the line it is not the ideal remedy to bring a wing into outside-centre. There are not too many outside-centres who can execute a pass in heavy traffic to put a player away outside them all that well anyway – so asking a bloke who normally plays wing to do it expertly is expecting a lot.
If you take Joseph as an example, he tends to catch the ball first and then run. Daly is more of a traditional 13 because he takes a running line first and then catches it.
What probably attracts Jones to the idea of Nowell at 13 is having a player with jinky feet who can take the ball early or late and make ground. As a wing he is also used to being in an exposed position because you are either being asked to pin your ears back and get over the line, or you are the last line of defence under the high ball or as a tackler.
Earlier in his international career defenders were often able to get the Exeter wing to stop, check, and cut inside. This is mainly because young wingers often do not have the confidence to back themselves and use their speed on the outside – but these days Nowell is much more likely to do that.
One of the biggest differences at 13 is he will have to learn a new role in defence, especially when it comes to defending the area between the outside goalpost and the 15 metre line. These days the 13 is blitzing up in defence to stop attacks getting to the outside channels. That is the domain of the outside-centre, and it demands that your judgement, running lines, angles and ability to make decisive one-stop tackles is finely tuned.
Nowell may have played at 13 a few times for the Chiefs but at international level it’s different gravy because the demands are much greater. The reason why outside-centres are now among the highest-paid players in the game is because it is such a key position both in defence and attack.
You saw this clearly in the impact Jonathan Davies had for the Lions in New Zealand, when he was voted the player of the tour for not just sparking the Lions attack but frequently stopping the All Blacks in their tracks.
Nowell is an elusive, quick-footed runner, and I’m sure that when he plays for his club Rob Baxter tells him to go looking for the ball and get his hands on it as often as possible – and it is his ability to do so which will have influenced Jones to consider him at 13.
Nowell is the sort of guy who can make yards from nothing. He’s such a tricky runner, luring in defenders by feigning to go one way before going the other and ducking, rolling or stepping out of tackles. He has a low centre of gravity and uses his strength to punch his way clear of contact, and, while he might not always go the full distance over 90 metres, he excels when defenders overcommit because of his ability to change direction in such a small window of space and time.
However, while I can see the thinking, I still see those who are more familiar with centre, like Alex Lozowski or Henry Slade when fit, as ahead of Jack in the midfield pecking order. They have a better understanding of the defensive demands at 13, and both have the pace to play there.
Nowell is often at his most effective as a wing when he cuts inside against a drift defence, but at 13 you are much less likely to do that.
The role of an outside-centre changes depending on the size, speed and skill set of that player. If you are big you will attract the defenders eye running hard and straight, defenders thinking is he going to get the ball or not, like a Ben Te’o or Manu Tuilagi. If you’ve got pace the defence is worried about their outsides, can they stop you having the time to use the gas. Passing seems less of a factor judging by what’s out there at the moment. This is in part why having two distributors at 10 and 12 has evolved and is a necessity to get the ball out in the wide spaces accurately and quickly.
That’s why against Italy my England back three would be Anthony Watson at full-back with Nowell and Jonny May on the wings. But I will be surprised if Jones does not pick Mike Brown at 15, with Watson on one wing and Nowell and May battling it out for the other.
I cannot see Eddie Jones picking Nowell at 13 against Italy unless it is an emergency, but there is no injury crisis. So, if I wanted to have a look at my outside-centre options, I would give either Lozowski or a fit-again Slade the chance to prove that they can provide the answer.
As for England, I would do with Nowell and Watson exactly what Gregor Townsend has instructed his Scotland team to do with Stuart Hogg – which is, because he is on form and on fire, to get the ball to him as often as possible.
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