YOU need to be a bit of a mind reader to work out what Eddie Jones will do next with his midfield selection, because he has had quite a few variations.
Some of them have been forced by injury, and others by wanting to look at new combinations. At the start he had George Ford at 10, Owen Farrell at 12, and Jonathan Joseph at 13, and it worked very well, helping England to win a 2016 Six Nations Grand Slam, and then whitewash Australia on the summer tour.
After that he wanted to see if Ben Te’o could bring a different dynamic, and then last season, with Manu Tuilagi finally getting back to full fitness, he made another switch by shifting Farrell to 10, and putting Tuilagi at 12 and Henry Slade at 13.
At that time Joseph was still injured, and the new combination made a big impact at the start of the 2019 Six Nations with Slade scoring two tries in a wonderfully crafted victory over Ireland in Dublin.
One of the biggest factors behind England falling short after that is that we did not see another pack performance like that in the Six Nations, or since then – although there were a few signs of the forwards getting back to that level in the warm-up game against Ireland at Twickenham.
The difference was the intense pressure England were under in Dublin. That was an inferno, and England came through it, showing great determination, character and skill.
However, because of the indifference of the performances in the Six Nations after that, and then the injury to Slade, Jones has been forced to revert back to what he had before – mixed with something that he always wanted to look at – which was a midfield trio of Ford 10, Farrell 12 and Tuilagi at 13.
It is the combination he played in the 50 pointer against Ireland, where it was very effective, and he used it again in the World Cup opening bonus point win against Tonga.
Since then Ford has had another run at fly-half in the big win over the USA, and he is reaffirming that he is England’s best all-round attacking fly-half. I say that because Ford edges Danny Cipriani in terms of his kicking game, while Cipriani edges Ford in the running game.
The good news for Jones is that Ford has been playing some of his best rugby, and has shown in Japan that he is on a mission. It means that if he is at 10 it is going to be very difficult for Slade and Joseph to get in the starting fifteen, because the England coach will see Farrell and Tuilagi as indispensable.
That’s why I would be amazed if the starting midfield against Argentina is not Ford, Farrell and Tuilagi. Ford is playing too well not to be picked, Farrell is captain, and Tuilagi was man of the match against Tonga.
It is hard to see Jones going back to Farrell at 10, Tuilagi at 12, and Joseph or Slade at 13, unless there is an injury.
The only other way is if Ford fades badly, but there is no sign of that. His tactical kicking is so good it looks like he’s got the ball on a piece of string, and his passing is so accurate and option-taking so sharp that he is at the top of his game.
There is also no underestimating the trust and understanding that has built up over the years between Ford and Farrell. The play-making dynamic that Ford brings means that Farrell and especially Tuilagi are being used wider out. Farrell at 12 is all about distribution to the wider channels after he has taken a deeper pass from Ford, because he’s no running threat.
That’s why they will be there with Tuilagi outside them – although I have little doubt that a Farrell-Tuilagi-Joseph combo would also work.
The other reason it could work is because with Tuilagi it is all about what he does in attack, whereas Joseph is now known more for his defence at club level at 13, than he is for attack.
Jones will be asking himself whether in big games they are more exposed defensively with Tuilagi at 13 than they would be with a specialist like Joseph – or like Slade, who reads the game so well.
Tuilagi is more prone to dive in, or dive out, in defence, so it will be very interesting to see how well he defends at 13 against Argentina and France – because if defences win World Cups it could be a crucial factor in whether he reverts to a midfield of Farrell 10, Tuilagi 12, and Joseph or Slade 13.
It’s a great position for Jones to be in because Joseph is really pushing hard and Slade is coming back to full fitness, but Tuilagi is nailed-on because of the physical presence he brings. He attracts defenders, whether or not he has the ball, and that is priceless.
Slade has already been involved in one of this World Cup’s strangest moments, when he and Elliot Daly missed the equivalent of an open goal against Tonga. It was a try they should have been able to score in their sleep, but they messed it up with both of them to blame, Daly because he was not deep enough and Slade because he passed to nobody.
Injuries at the wrong time are always costly, and that is the case with Slade at the moment. Had he been fit in the warm-ups , then he might have been re-united with Farrell and Tuilagi, and it might have been different.
Now it is likely that it will be either Joseph or Slade competing for a place on the bench against Argentina, along with Joe Cokanasiga.
Against the USA I thought Cokanasiga looked tentative despite his two tries. It is important that he realises what a threat he is. He’s got it, and he’s got to stop worrying about whether he hurts other people. He’s got to get beyond that, and it’s a pity that Jones did not play him more last season.
The competition on the wings is fierce with Anthony Watson coming back as one of the best attacking threats England have with his energy and ability to make breaks. You also wouldn’t leave out Jonny May given what he’s done over the past year, and Jones has shown he intends to persevere with Daly at full-back.
I would love to see Cokanasiga put more pressure on the back three selection, but he will have to get over any big stage nerves to do that. Watching him running at full tilt is one of the great sights in rugby, but we will have to see whether he gets another opportunity with selection narrowing down as the big games approach.
He may have to wait for an injury, or see if he can force his way into the 23 instead of Joseph or Slade.
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