ENGLAND’S Six Nations campaign is in the balance when they meet Ireland on Sunday, yet, with Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray, two of the best tactical kickers in the world, facing them at Twickenham, Eddie Jones is gambling with his back three.
The England coach is likely to field his deposed World Cup full-back, Elliot Daly, on the left wing, and the fresh-faced kid who has supplanted him, George Furbank, in the 15 shirt, with Jonny May on the right wing completing the trio.
The experiment is two games old, with Northampton novice Furbank experiencing an under-fire debut in the opening round defeat at the Stade de France, and Daly returning to his old post in the tramlines after an 18 month deployment at full-back in which he played 21 Tests.
Both Daly, 27, and Furbank, 23, came through the the storm-wracked win over the Scots last weekend in their new posts with their flags still attached to the Red Rose mast. However, it is highly unlikely that Furbank would have got his chance so soon if Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell had been fit – while Daly might also have been struggling to make the starting line-up.
Watson was in pole position to take over from Daly following a positional move which came to an abrupt end when Jones made the decision to drop his 2019 World Cup backstop – despite him starting all six matches in England’s run to the final.
Even so, after Watson was injured there was widespread surprise at the start of the Six Nations when the coach opted for the untried Furbank at 15 rather than opting for Daly.
While no one can accuse Jones of lacking the courage of his selection convictions, there was precious little explanation of what finally forced him into such an abrupt about-turn on Daly’s full-back credentials.
As for Furbank, the former Bedford School, Huntingdon RFC, and Cambridge RFC product’s exuberance this season in a free-running Saints backline saw him promoted to the England starting side after just 30 senior appearances for Northampton.
The timing was ironic given that Daly’s move to join Saracens from Wasps last summer had seen him start his first few games for his new club at full-back, whereas at Wasps he was stationed at outside-centre, and hardly ever played in the position.
Having weathered the first two rounds of the tournament, England’s rivals for the full-back berth now face what is potentially an even more perilous challenge in the guise of a resurgent Irish side, steered by Murray and Sexton.
When it comes to making the opposition back three race around chasing kicks like headless chickens, Murray and Sexton have no peers – and England have been their victims more than once.
The most notable instance was five years ago in Dublin when Stuart Lancaster’s England outfit utterly failed to deal with the aerial bombardment from the Irish duo, crashing to a loss which scuppered their title ambitions.
This time Ireland are in the driving seat again with two wins from two, and are motivated by a deep desire to banish memories of a wretched World Cup campaign by winning a Grand Slam.
Daly acknowledges the threat from Murray and Sexton: “Their variety of kicking, especially Sexton – long, short, little chips – will test the back three definitely. And Murray is one of the best box-kickers in the world. So, yes, they’ve got two good kickers. It will be trying to nullify that threat – and the way it’s going so far, especially with the tough conditions last weekend in Edinburgh, is in the right direction.”
He says back-three communication in order to stay connected and work as a unit is paramount, especially after only two games alongside Furbank.
“We’ve trained together quite a few times now, and George has played full-back for quite a long time, so he knows what he needs to do in that area.
“It’s all about reading body language really. At international level it could be seeing that if they open their body up it’s probably going to be cross-field, or if it’s going to be a bomb it’s about trying to pick up on those cues early, and making sure you are in the right position.”
Daly’s hardest adjustment at full- back was in aerial contests, and he sheds light on what makes it so awkward. “The most difficult aspect is when people aren’t going to catch the ball, but try to just flick it back. You’ve got an advantage doing that because you are going to get higher with one hand anyway – but if you are aggressive going for the ball, you usually get there first. So, it’s two sides of one coin.”
Furbank accepts that the Irish half-backs will want him scrambling, but wants to ensure it is not one way traffic when he plays at Twickenham for the first time.
“They are two world class operators, especially when it comes to the kicking game. It poses a big challenge for us. If we get that aerial battle right then it gives us a big chance to get into the game and put onto them what we want to put onto them. There’s plenty of time on video analysis. The coaches are pretty hot on that.”
Furbank says he has got to grips with the first night nerves that got to him before playing France, leading to a couple of knock-ons.
“You have to be able to shut mistakes out of your mind. If you keep dwelling on mistakes you are never going to get into the game. You can’t think about the past. It was frustrating at the time when you drop the ball or made an error. But you have boys in your ear saying, ‘next job’. You have to keep the right mentality. You have to do your next job as well as you can.”
Ask the Saints full-back what it was like playing in the Stade de France in front of 80,000 fans and the words flow. “It was an amazing feeling. The nerves were well and truly going on Sunday morning. It was different to anything I’d played in front of before. I’ve probably played in front of 20-25,000 at most. That was all a bit crazy, and I let that get to me a little bit during the game.”
So, has such a tough debut in Paris given him the confidence he can cope with anything? “Wherever I made my debut it was going to be challenging, but France away is a particularly tough one. Jonny (May) said to me the week after, ‘that is one of the toughest challenges you could get first up – you’ll be a way better player for it’.”
Furbank adds that the most striking difference between playing in front of 13,000 at Franklin’s Gardens and 80,000 is the decibel level.
“The biggest thing is not being able to hear each other. At times Jonny was screaming at me, or I was screaming at him, or Elliot, and you can’t hear each other. You’ve got to be head-on-a-swivel the whole time trying to make contact with them another way. But it was kind of cool. I liked the knowledge. If you get on top for a bit and the (Paris) crowd goes quiet you think ‘okay, we’re in now’.”
He says that while the conditions at Murrayfield were dire they also helped him to find his feet. “I’ve only played one game like that before, down at Gloucester in the Premiership Cup. It wasn’t nice out there – guessing where the ball was going to go – but I felt a bit more myself, more composed, more clear-headed, and that allowed me to play my game and I was a bit more vocal on the pitch and sharper.”
Furbank describes the whole international experience as all-consuming: “It’s intense, it’s tough, it’s challenging, but I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve fitted in pretty well. The boys have helped massively. I didn’t really know what to expect coming in. Obviously I’d heard the training was tougher. I expected that, and it has been like that. Game-wise it’s a lot more tactical than club rugby. And obviously the risks are higher with everything you do.”
Despite the positional rivalry the new boy gets the thumbs up from Daly, who shared a room with him in the Portugal training camp.
Daly said: “He just wanted to know everything before the session started and make sure he was on the same page as everyone. I think he was a little shocked to be starting the first game, but it is all credit to how he trained, and he has settled in really well. I am still getting to know him, but he’s very down to earth and laid back.
“We chatted during the week about what an England 15 needs to do in the team and what the role is…you just need to make good decisions at good times.”
Daly then reveals that one of the best decisions the England squad made the past week was going to see the Cirque du Soleil.
“It was very good – I would encourage you to go. I think the culture was probably lost on the Exeter lot – Luke Cowan-Dickie especially…”
However, it will not have been lost on Daly, or Furbank, because along with its cultural components the Cirque is also famed for extraordinary aerial acrobatics – and that is something England will need from their full-back duo in spades against the Irish.
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