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The three players poised to cause the most grief for the All Blacks

NZ Herald

Eddie Jones staked his England tenure on the midfield of Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade and it was a decision that paid off handsomely in Oita.

I must admit that I was one of those who was surprised he had dropped George Ford but there is now no question this trio must start against the All Blacks next Saturday. They functioned extremely well, dovetailing and marrying their varied skill-set in a dynamic and powerful performance that was too good for Australia.

The key question for any coach is which combination your opponents would least like to face and after watching them play I have no doubt New Zealand would be delighted if Ford was recalled at 10 with Farrell and Tuilagi outside him.

That’s not because Ford is a bad player – in fact, I consider him to be an exceptional one – but the unit as a whole seems to have a better balance when Farrell, Tuilagi and Slade are in tandem. The key reason for that is Farrell appears to feel far more at home in the No 10 shirt than at inside centre. His performances in the pool stage had been underwhelming, and it seemed to me that he was slightly unsure of whether or not he should be taking control. Having two playmakers can be useful but there are times when you don’t know which of them has the hand on the tiller. When Farrell is at 12 he sometimes seems a little inhibited, a little unsure of himself – particularly when Ford is playing as well as he has done so far.

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That was certainly not the case against the Wallabies. Farrell was commanding, directing operations with clarity and intelligence. He knew when to pass and when to kick and rarely chose the wrong option.

He was helped by those outside him. Tuilagi is not subtle but there is no doubt he is extremely effective at what he does. I was pitchside in Oita and what struck me was how a Tuilagi carry sounds compared to almost anyone else. There is a power and a noise when he goes into contact that genuinely takes your breath away and makes you wince. If he calls for the ball you give it to him because it takes at least two men, and often a lot more, to bring him down.

At outside centre I thought Slade showed his character. His start was underwhelming and after playing such little rugby recently I feared for him slightly. I was wrong to do so because he was exceptional after that early wobble, with his break and brilliant kick ahead for Jonny May’s second score a moment of true class, while his mighty boot was also effective.

And while we know their qualities going forward, what also impressed me was their steadfastness in defence. Ford is much improved as a defender but if he plays he will be targeted by teams who see a potential weakness. With Farrell in that position and Tuilagi outside him that weakness does not exist and teams have to vary their game to find space.

To be fair to them Australia had moments of real joy – one hand-off by Samu Kerevi on Tuilagi sticks in the mind, while Slade was caught out for Marika Koroibete’s try – but overall this was a relatively solid defensive performance by a unit that will only improve from time playing together.

If there is a concern it is that channel between Slade and his winger. That space is often called the corner of the defence because the winger is not up in the defensive line but sits slightly back to cover any potential kicks. A good 13 must be able to read the game and react to any possible threat because they have to cover a big area. You would expect Beauden Barrett, in particular, to test England in that area.

But New Zealand will be just as worried at the prospect of facing Tuilagi. They will remember what he did to them in 2012, and he looks as fit now as he has at pretty much any point since that day.

Jones will also have been encouraged by how Ford, and indeed all the replacements, did after coming on. You might expect a slight drop in intensity when the substitutes arrive but at pitch side you could tell that wasn’t the case. Instead Ford just slotted seamlessly in, ensuring Australia didn’t have a sniff of getting back into the match.

It was a highly impressive midfield performance and one which will have pleased Jones immensely. Having staked so much on his three chosen men he will now be looking forward with real excitement to see what damage they can inflict on the All Blacks.

This article first appeared on nzherald.co.nz and is republished with permission.

Eddie Jones was in a jovial mood after England ended Australia’s World Cup hopes:

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The three players poised to cause the most grief for the All Blacks