If the balance and blend of England’s back row is the most talked about topic in regard to the side, the centre combinations can’t be far behind.
After Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph enjoyed a sublime first year under Eddie Jones, a number of issues have taken root since, such as injuries and an inability to generate front-foot ball, and England’s midfield has been in flux for the last two seasons. Farrell has been a relative mainstay at 12, with the cast changing outside of him, but now with England keen to get him back into his favoured position of fly-half, there is even more uncertainty in the centres.
Defensively, it was an area England struggled in against the Springboks and it will have come under close scrutiny this week, especially with Manu Tuilagi cleared to play and coming off the back of some impressive Gallagher Premiership and Heineken Champions Cup form with Leicester Tigers.
We take a run through England’s possible midfield combinations to take on the All Blacks, looking at each unit’s pros and cons, with it clearly set to be an area where England will be tested by the visitors at Twickenham this weekend.
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The simplest option for England would be to stick with what they opted for against South Africa.
Offensively, it put together some promising moments, especially in the 20 minutes after half time when England were able to retain possession and up the tempo, but defensively it was vulnerable. In Slade’s eagerness to ensure his wings were never isolated, he would regularly drift out at a pace that Te’o couldn’t match on his inside and when one of Damian de Allende or Jesse Kriel cut back against the grain, Slade would be trusting his inside man to cover, who just wasn’t able to get across quickly enough.
Te’o will be sharper this week, having had just 28 minutes of rugby this season going into that game, their understanding of each other will be better and John Mitchell’s influence on the group should only grow with time. As a trio, it provides punch up the middle outside of Farrell and in Slade they have a player more than competent enough to bring the wings into play, via a pass or a kick.
A slight tinkering that potentially provides a little bit more lateral mobility at inside centre and would prevent England being opened up when New Zealand carriers put their foot in the ground and step back inside.
Jones has said he sees Tuilagi exclusively as a 13 now, which is a fair assessment based on his skills and his performances for Leicester – and previously England – in the outside centre spot, but it would not be the first time he has said one thing and done another in his tenure as head coach.
Tuilagi at inside centre could be a stopgap measure until Te’o gets a little more rugby under his belt this season.
Jones couldn’t, could he?
Going full-on power against New Zealand hasn’t actually hurt England – or South Africa – in the past, but it seems a stretch, especially given how valuable mobility and an ability to link play with the wider channels is at 13.
This feels like a combination that Jones could turn to at about midway through the second half if things aren’t going well for England and they need an injection of impetus. England have never selected such a direct midfield as this under Jones, with a secondary playmaker, either at 12 or 13, consistently a feature of his sides.
Another midfield that seems equally unlikely given the presence of both Te’o and Tuilagi in England’s retained 25 players, but it is somewhat of a reversion to type for England over the past few seasons.
The problem is that it is so heavy with playmakers that the goal of creating space, the reason why you would select all three of these players, will be made even harder. Without a differing threat in the trio, particularly one that can run hard at the space and draw defenders in, New Zealand should more easily be able to contain the group.
That said, the passing and kicking potential of the trio is excellent and you would back them to find holes and exploit space in behind the New Zealand defensive line. It all just feels a bit too unlikely, however, with the other options England have at their disposal and their previous struggles with combinations of this type.
Do not underestimate the trust that Jones has in Te’o.
The former rugby league man is usually included in England squads the moment he is passed fit and it’s not just Jones, with Warren Gatland having been extremely eager to get him involved with the British and Irish Lions last year, where he enjoyed his fair share of success.
The issue here would again be mobility in that 13 channel and the ability to get across and help out his wings. If New Zealand can suck in defenders with a couple of quick carries up the middle, they have the breakdown nous and decision-makers on the field to get that ball wide quickly and try and turn the corner outside of Te’o, potentially creating two-on-ones or three-on-twos with England’s remaining defenders.
The question with this combination would revolve around just how fit is Tuilagi.
He has shown in the recent weeks and months for Leicester that he is still the mobile centre that he was before his injury hell, but is he at or close to 100% at the moment, given that he had a slight groin injury prevent him from featuring against South Africa?
If that injury is completely healed and he is moving as well as he was in the opening two weeks of the Champions Cup, this could be the combination that England fans have been dreaming of for the last two seasons. The playmaker axis with the direct runner outside is a system that has been used successfully before.
For all the positives of the previous three combinations, it seems counter-productive, having made the decision Farrell is England’s premiere fly-half, to move him back to inside centre after just one week in the driving seat.
The issue here would be how does Slade cope with the responsibilities at 12? On paper, he ticks all the boxes to make you think that it would work, he has plenty of experience in the 10 jersey and he reads the game as quickly as anyone, yet it’s something which has never taken in the few opportunities he has had there.
Maybe those instances for club and country at 12 were anomalies or he was the victim of unfavourable circumstances, but his track record inside is nowhere near as impressive as it is on the outside. That said, having Farrell at 10 and Tuilagi on the outside is a pretty good safety blanket if England were to try it, although it would perhaps be advisable not to give it its first outing against the All Blacks.
Watch: Chris Ashton talks about life back in the England camp.
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