Alex Goode has been the most consistent full-back in high-performance terms in the Premiership for some time in the eyes of most people, and that probably explains why he got his chance in a reshaped back three against Fiji. Certainly, that was the case last season, and he has started this one equally well.
However, aerial ping-pong is a big factor in the international game, and you have to dominate in that area if you want to be an international starter. Mike Brown manages to do that in a way very few English full-backs do, and while Goode has done well on the occasions when he has had a chance, he has not dominated the high ball to the degree that he has ripped the shirt off Brown’s back.
When it comes to Test selection you cannot afford to win on points – you’ve got to knock the champion out to take the title, and Goode, below, hasn’t managed that yet. Even a man-of-the-match performance against Fiji would not have guaranteed the Saracens full-back the shirt against Argentina or Australia and it has to be said that he hardly made an auspicious start by dropping the first high ball he face.
The essence of it is that Goode’s chance in the big games probably relies on Brown either having a lousy run of form, or being injured. That’s not the greatest place to be, but that’s professional sport, and at the moment Brown is Eddie Jones’ first choice at full-back.
Some critics have argued that passing is not Brown’s strong suit. As a player you have to feel that the best thing for you to do is to let the ball go because your team-mates will score if you do. We’ve seen Brown do that, but also on other occasions he has chosen not to make the pass – and that’s why it was so good to see him put Jonny May over against South Africa.
Overall, I don’t agree that with Brown it’s him first, and he passes only as a last resort. He doesn’t play like Israel Folau or Ben Smith, but he is a guy who comes onto the ball and attacks hard. Sometimes, not passing is a sign of a slight drop in confidence leading to players becoming more cautious, but the flip side is that Brown is an experienced player, an England vice-captain, and perhaps he doesn’t always pass because he’s got the ability to break out himself.
Of the other changes, I don’t know an English wing who is playing better than Semesa Rokoduguni as he showed with his man of the match performance yesterday at Twickenham.
The worst of his performances for Bath have been good, and his best have been fantastic, so he fully deserved his selection against Fiji.
The other positional switch was Elliot Daly moving to wing instead of May, but you don’t want the tag, in my opinion, of being a utility back because you will end up being a bench-warmer.
Also, if I’m a fit winger, I’m a bit peeved I’m not in ahead of an outside-centre like Daly. Daly’s fine display yesterday will just show Jones that he is capable filling-in on the wing, rather than a permanent solution.
Rokoduguni has caught a bit of scepticism because sometimes he does not look as switched-on as he is, but he’s deceptively quick and powerful, and has an unrivalled ability to step out of tackles, or roll out of them, and his capacity to get over the line is world class.
His positioning under the high ball can sometimes be a bit suspect, but he usually gets there. However, occasionally Roko lets the ball bounce, and that is one of his few weaknesses. When Eddie Jones says he will play 13 to 40 Tests, that seems a bit ambitious given the quality of the incumbents. Anthony Watson has got better with each international, and that means that the remaining wing place is up for grabs between Roko, Jack Nowell, Jonny May and Marland Yarde.
Although those three are all younger than Rokoduguni they have all occasionally been indifferent for England, and there was an outcry when he didn’t make the team against South Africa last weekend with Yarde picked ahead of him – and the sense of injustice wasn’t just confined to Bath.
In hindsight, Yarde didn’t have the kind of performance against the Springboks that rubber-stamped him in the England starting line-up. It wasn’t a ‘pick-me’ display, and even though he had limited opportunities with not much space, he could have been a bit busier and made more of the ball he had. At Test level you have to be seen to be looking for the ball and making yourself available.
May finished his try as a good winger should, but every time you pull on that white jersey you have to give the impression of playing the best game you’ve to the ever have. For instance, as a winger you will get about five opportunities to make your mark in a game, whether it’s going up high and dominating in the air, or getting back in defence and dummying the first defender before passing it inside for a 40 metre clearance, there is always some way to have an impact.
If I’m a fit winger and Eddie Jones is saying the autumn series is a bit like the pool stage in the World Cup, then if I get a start in the back three my biggest challenge is staying there in what is an ultracompetitive environment.
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