By Jeremy Guscott
IF Jonathan Joseph was more penetrative in his running, and making more clean breaks, there would be no discussion about the England 13 shirt because, rather than being ousted by Ben Te’o, he would have made it his own.
Instead, the Bath outside-centre has been replaced in the starting line-up against Italy by Te’o, with Eddie Jones picking a man who has not played since being injured in October.
That is a serious warning shot. The signs were there that the England coach was not satisfied with Joseph’s progress because he was left out of the squad at the start of the season.
Work-rate is an issue with Joseph, with Jones suggesting he should go looking for the ball more. However, that’s what every player should do at international level and even more so because the 13 is so pivotal in defence as well as attack.
Outside-centres are now very much defensive leaders, and Joseph’s ability in that area is his trump card, and although he drops to the bench it is the main reason he is in the match 23.
He is not a stop-in your-tracks tackler but he is very effective. What a back of his size does not want is some giant running at him in a straight line, and I was similar in that regard. If you go low you are vulnerable to being bumped off or run over, and if you go high there is the danger they will simply push you off as you come in to tackle.
Instead, Joseph utilises his pace to get to the ball-carrier or intended receiver very quickly. That way you either push the attack back inside, or you give them the outside because the chance of them out-gassing you is not high. If they try it, you get the angle on them and scythe them down.
There’s a lot of thinking required when it comes to defending that 13 channel, and that’s why outside-centre has become such a high-salary position in today’s pro game.
However, that is only one part of what is expected. The 13 has to contribute to his team getting back into attacking mode quickly. Joseph has all the assets to be a brilliant attacking option, but it’s about how you link with the other outside backs.
Those teams that have an attacking 13 and 15 working in tandem have fantastic options. Look at how Jonathan Davies and Liam Williams worked together for the Lions in New Zealand last summer, and also the attacking dimension that Scotland uncovered when Huw Jones and Stuart Hogg got on each other’s wavelength.
Joseph needs to put down a marker in this Six Nations. He has to start dominating games and being man of the match, and to do that he has to get the ball more. That means calling for it more, calling moves more, and generally getting more involved in decision-making.
If Joseph started taking the ball at speed rather than standing still he would have the same impact as Huw Jones and Elliot Daly.
If Joseph had as much impact in attack as he does in defence he would be comfortably one of the best 13s in the world. If he started playing in that fashion it would be some statement.
Joseph’s approach on the field does not always attract positive reviews, because he ambles, and is sometimes too casual and disinterested – especially when it comes to putting himself in positions to get the ball. Joseph could be hugely influential, but so far he has shown it only in glimpses. His line speed in defence is exceptional. It distracts attackers and wins him intercept tries, and also those where he kicks on from dropped passes to score.
There is plenty for Eddie Jones to like about Joseph. But coaches know there are players who will always empty the tank, and the Bath centre has to have the ambition to become one of those.
Joseph is a leader because he is a 13, but he does not appear to be a leader in terms of how ‘on it’ he is. Sometimes he does not appear to be fully engaged, and yet in terms of ability there is no reason why he cannot be ‘man of the tournament’ in the same way Stuart Hogg has been for the last two years.
It’s about a state of mind. The beauty of sport is that nothing is set in stone, but the talent some players possess means they have the opportunity to change games if they have the right mindset. Joseph has the agility and the speed, but also obvious areas where he can improve. One of those is his aerial game. With his sort of speed his standing jump should be better than almost anyone, but you often see him go up and try to a slap the ball back one-handed rather than catch it.
No one had been pushing Joseph with Te’o and Manu Tuilagi injured, and Elliot Daly had been a success on the wing. However, with Te’o fit again, and Tuilagi playing for Leicester, there is every likelihood of Joseph being swapped in and out of the England midfield line-up.
At the moment Joseph is not indispensable in the way Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje are. Although he and Anthony Watson arrived on the scene at the same time, Watson has made more gains because Joseph’s contribution in attack is intermittent.
Last season Joseph was devastatingly brilliant against Scotland, and while you don’t always get gaps of that size every day in international rugby, he showed real class. He has to find that fizz when he gets the chance in this Six Nations if he is to make the 13 shirt his again.
Te’o is a quality player providing a different option in playing style to Joseph which in turn sets a different team dynamic. Te’o is more direct and confrontational, a much required additional ball carrier to support the forwards and provide space for the outside backs. Te’o’s size attracts attention, he’s a big unit, whether he has the ball or not. Defenders will always have to be on point, you can’t ignore Te’o on a dummy run because if he gets the ball and you haven’t readied yourself for that outcome you will be flattened or he’ll run straight past.
One of Te’o’s best attributes is he runs his weight, rarely does he slow down if a player is in front of him. Te’o could be the Billy Vunipola in the backs, and that’s special.
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