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England's best 10-12? Ford-Farrell obviously...

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Why the Ford-Farrell axis was England's best 10-12 combination over the past four years

It has been a remarkable and eventful four years for England since Eddie Jones took over in late 2015. They had reached a nadir in the professional ere before he arrived, failing to make it out of their pool at the World Cup on home soil. 

After a brilliant showing with Japan in that tournament, Jones was given the task of resurrecting a country damaged on a scale not previously experienced. The new head coach started brilliantly, guiding his new team to a Grand Slam, a series whitewash in Australia and a record-equaling 18-match winning streak. 

The run of results came to an end in 2017 when losing to Ireland, but there was still a second successive Six Nations title collected. A humbling 2018, where England only won six of their twelve matches, was a slump in the Australian’s tenure and his job was in jeopardy. But the following year saw a change of fortunes as England reached the recent World Cup final.

Certain intricacies define a turbulent four years. One of the primary changes Jones made was reintroducing Dylan Hartley to Test rugby and installing him as his captain. However, the most defining decision was perhaps moulding Owen Farrell as an inside centre and creating the much-discussed axis with George Ford at fly-half. 

The notion of having two ball-playing fly-halves in the backline was something that Jones wanted, and Ford and Farrell complemented one another very well. Ford provided world-class distribution and attacking guile, while Farrell provided metronomic place-kicking, defensive strength and organisation. This was a unison and friendship that had dated back to their teenage years, as well as their time playing together for England under-20s. 

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These two started 28 of England’s 50 Test games since the 2015 RWC, winning 79 per cent (W39 D1 L10) of their games. Only four other 10-12 combinations were used more than once. Farrell reverted back to fly-half to partner Manu Tuilagi on five occasions, winning three, losing one and drawing one. Ben Te’o also played alongside the England captain five times, winning four (80 per cent). 

Ford, meanwhile, linked up with Piers Francis four times, winning three (75 per cent), and Alex Lozowski three times, winning all matches. Five other combinations were used just once, with a victory in every match. These saw Ford partner Luther Burrell and Henry Slade, Farrell partner Burrell and Francis, and Danny Cipriani partner Farrell. The Gloucester fly-half was the only other player to start at No10 during the Jones era, his inclusion coming in the third Test of the South African tour in 2018. 

When looking at these figures, the Ford-Farrell combination was the second most successful of all that played over one game. While they are bettered by Ford’s link with Lozowski, those matches were against Argentina, Samoa and Japan.  However, once again these stats only tell half the story as Jones’ term so far can be divided into individual segments: the success in 2016 and 2017, the slump in 2018 (chiefly the Six Nations that year), and a resurgence in late 2018 and 2019. 

The disastrous Six Nations campaign in 2018 could be seen as a watershed moment, whereby Jones abandoned the philosophy that had served him well and temporarily laid to rest the Ford-Farrell axis. After losing to both Scotland and France, Jones decided to alter his 10-12 combination, dropping Ford to the bench and deploying Farrell at 10 and Te’o at 12. Up until this point, Ford had started 26 of England’s 27 matches post-2015, having sat on the bench in the first Test of the series in Australia in 2016. 

Before the campaign-ending Ireland match, Ford and Farrell had lined up alongside one another in 21 of 27 matches, winning 18 (86 per cent). Furthermore, during 2016 and 2017, they had started 17 of 23 matches, only losing one (94 per cent). This would have probably been higher, but Farrell was absent with the British and Irish Lions in 2017 and was subsequently rested for some games in the following autumn. 

However, despite winning two matches, England had looked slow and impotent during the first four matches of the 2018 Six Nations. In a team that was struggling to gain any ascendency or front-foot ball, it was pointless to play with two playmakers, and the Ireland game signified the beginning of an approach by Jones to play a confrontational 12 to gain momentum. England did lose that Twickenham game, but it was a fork in the road where the national team’s set-up changed markedly. 

Jones opted to revert back to playing with two fly-halves for the 2018 tour of South Africa, but the first and second Tests would be the final time Ford and Farrell started together for over a year. Cipriani came in for the third Test and despite earning the win, didn’t feature again. 

For the following autumn, Jones almost exclusively used a ball-carrying inside centre. Farrell and Te’o played against South Africa, the All Blacks and Australia, but the former league star was replaced by Tuilagi in the Six Nations (except for the match against Italy) and it seemed to strike a chord, particularly with Slade at outside centre, who can equally play fly-half. 

This Farrell-Tuilagi option looked to be the one for England heading towards the RWC and while they did lose to Wales and draw to Scotland in 2019’s Six Nations, the display against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium seemed to cement their places in the team. 

However, it was only in an RWC warm-up match against Ireland in August 2019 that Jones decided to reprise his favoured partnership of the Leicester Tigers fly-half and the Saracen. Behind a pack that had the dynamism of Tom Curry, Maro Itjoe and Sam Underhill and the brute strength of the Billy Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler, the once-neglected tandem thrived and England won 57-15 in ruthless fashion. 

This did not necessarily mark a total return for Jones’ iconic duo, but it gave him options and the luxury of picking his team based on the opponents. The Ford-Farrell combination looked to be the first choice in Japan, although Francis was brought in at 12 against the USA. However, to counter the rampant Samu Kerevi, Jones utilised the defensively resolute Farrell-Tuilagi partnership in the quarter-final against Australia, bringing Ford back for the semi-final against the All Blacks and final versus the Springboks. 

The very fact that Jones still rues the decision not to change this axis for a belligerent South African team shows how far England had come during his time at the helm. Such versatility was never really an option in the first two-and-a-half years of his tenure, and the irony is that it was his abundance of resources that was his undoing in the loss to Rassie Erasmus’ side, as he has admitted he may have made the wrong choice. 

He can be forgiven, particularly after such a sublime performance against the All Blacks, but the question will always remain whether this was Jones’ decision all along to eventually arrive back at the Ford-Farrell connection. It is hard to believe that it was during a torrid 2018 where England looked to have grown stale in a number of departments. 

It must be noted, though, that Billy Vunipola only played 120 minutes of rugby across two Tests in 2018 – the two losses in South Africa (although he was still returning to fitness). The No8 is so crucial to England making ground and playing on the front-foot, hence why he played all 15 Tests in 2019. The stats are ostensibly clear that in his absence his team struggles. 

Behind a retreating pack, it made sense that a more physical presence was needed in the 12 shirt. However, Billy’s return to fitness in 2019, as well as some tweaks to the pack, provided the platform for the Ford-Farrell combination to reign supreme again. 

To have a player injured for so long was never part of the plan, but Jones had always emphasised that his goal was for England to peak in Japan, which would have been every coach’s objective, so the four years prior would have been a case of trialling out every possible option he had. 

That is perhaps why 2016 saw Ford and Farrell start together in eleven matches, six times in 2017, and five times in both 2018 and 2019. These decisions may have been mitigated by results, but Jones may have also wanted to experiment with different ideas. 

After two years of implementing what he thought was going to be successful, he had another two to test out alternatives. Although it did seem like he had forsaken his preferred 10-12 axis at one point, it would have always remained at the back of his mind.  

When looking back at the past four years, the Ford-Farrell combination has to be regarded as the most successful as they played and won more games than all the other partnerships combined. Although some others had a higher winning percentage, that is a misnomer due to the standard of the opposition. But it was not plain sailing for Ford and Farrell – or England as a whole – and after years of ebb and flow, it was only at the RWC that it was conclusively proven to be the best option. 

WATCH: RugbyPass looks back on some of our favourite moments with the fans from the 2019 World Cup in Japan

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Why the Ford-Farrell axis was England's best 10-12 combination over the past four years