Ex-England player argues Simmonds could be alternative to Tuilagi
Ex-England international Austin Healey has floated a radical tactic involving Sam Simmonds so that Eddie Jones can have a reliable like-for-like Plan B for those occasions when Manu Tuilagi is unavailable for Test selection. Neither the Exeter back-rower nor the Sale midfielder is available for the upcoming three-Test series away to Australia.
Simmonds was ruled out last month with a hip problem while Tuilagi was recommended for a knee op this week so that he can be at his best for the 2022/23 domestic campaign leading into the World Cup with England in France.
The issue Healey has with all this forward-thinking is that England didn’t use the previous absences of Tuilagi to come up with what he feels is the best alternative for when the midfield powerhouse isn’t able to play. Ever since his pre-lockdown red card versus Wales in March 2020, England have more often than not taken the pitch without Tuilagi available.
In 20 Test matches played since rugby got going again following its pandemic stoppage, the 31-year-old centre has played on just three occasions – a run of starts in last November’s Autumn Nations Series which ended painfully with a hamstring injury sustained when scoring in the corner versus the Springboks at Twickenham.
England coach Jones has often spoken about the notion of hybrid players, forwards who can play as backs and backs who can play as forwards. Look at how winger Jack Nowell packed down as a flanker in the scrum after lock Charlie Ewels was red-carded less than two minutes into the recent Guinness Six Nations loss to Ireland.
Healey, though, wants Jones to test out something more radical later than year when hopefully Simmonds will be fit and back in the England mix. Writing in the UK Telegraph, the former international suggested: “Whenever Manu Tuilagi is not starting for England, the talking point building up to a Test match on the trains and in the pubs always seems to be about the new centre partnership – how are they going to perform without Manu there?
“Without Tuilagi around there’s just uncertainty and it’s an issue England have never been able to solve. You can go down the route of trying to find a replacement for Manu but there isn’t anyone. Ollie Lawrence at Worcester was seen as another potential power runner who could do similar sorts of things to Manu, although with more footwork, but he has also been plagued by injury and you have to wonder whether we will see him in an England shirt again under Eddie Jones.
“There was talk of Mark Atkinson earlier in the season but he has only been picked once, off the bench against Tonga, and he’s now 32 so it’s difficult to see that manifesting itself, not to mention that Atkinson isn’t Manu. The best option of course would have been Andre Esterhuizen at Harlequins but as he made clear in a recent interview with Telegraph Sport, he’s ‘too South African (to play for England)’ and has no ancestry here.
“It’s time to think further afield with selection… Sam Simmonds moving to centre? It would take buy-in from Exeter and seems like a longshot, given how hard the position is defensively. Eddie must have ideas along those lines which he wants to develop because there are not many existing options at 13 and the ones that are available do not offer a lot of size.
“Without an obvious power runner, you almost have to see the first phase as your best way of scoring, trying to catch the opposition out with pace and deception… Moving on from Manu is a bit strong, but they have to seriously consider that Manu might start the World Cup but not finish it, and if that happens do you have a style of play to fall back on.
“Do you actually have to replace him like for like, or should you be trying to get your best 15 players on the field? Simmonds can still wear No8 on his shirt but be used in midfield, you don’t have to be stereotyped. It’s a shame he won’t be fit to tour Australia either due to his hip injury but he should not be ruled out as a long-term alternative.
“Brian Ashton used to talk about the number on the back of your shirt doesn’t matter and the game seems to be evolving into unstructured rugby. Manu breaks up structured defences, and having surgery now makes sense with the World Cup in mind. But now England need to find new ways to do that without him.”
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