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Woodward names the player England must build their backline around

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

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Former England coach Clive Woodward has chosen the player he believes that struggling England must build their backline around – and it’s not Marcus Smith. Eddie Jones’ squad flew out on Tuesday for their three-Test tour of Australia, hoping to put a run of poor form in 2022 behind them. 

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Having won just two of their five matches in the recent Guinness Six Nations, England came an embarrassing cropper at home to a 14-man Barbarians last Sunday at Twickenham. These disappointing performances have heaped the pressure on Jones to quickly find a solution with the countdown now on towards the 2023 World Cup in France.

Woodward will be closely looking at what Jones does with his England backline in Australia, fearing there is too much uncertainty surrounding selection due to the constantly changing approach being taken by a coach whose choices have lacked consistency. 

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While Woodward reckoned that England have six world-class players in the forwards, he explained his concerns with the situation going on behind the scrum and insisted it quickly needs sorting out by Jones building a backline around young full-back Freddie Steward. 

The 21-year-old was first capped in the 2021 Summer Series but he now has ten caps after starting every England Test match over the course of the last year and has flown out to Australia as a recently crowned Gallagher Premiership winner after featuring in Leicester’s win over Saracens last Saturday.   

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Woodward now wants Jones to get real with selection and he explained why in his latest Sportsmail column which was published on Wednesday, three days after England were left embarrassed in the non-capped international against the Barbarians. “Winning is the only thing that matters. Selection is an art, not a science. Jones has lost the knack of spotting individuals who are ‘wow’ players – the turnover is of concern given the quality at his disposal,” he wrote. 

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“You have to have the mindset that the next game is going to be your last as coach, it really does focus the mind. I used to think about how many of my players would get in the best team in the world. If I could get to six then you knew you’d be in a decent position, and from there the coaching and style of play becomes straightforward.

“In Olympic terms, they talk about the podium and whether an athlete is gold, silver or bronze. You want gold medal players who are the best in the world in their positions and we do have a few of these, but largely in the forwards.

“The six players on the ‘podium’ in the forwards are Ellis Genge, Kyle Sinckler when fit, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes (as a second row), Billy Vunipola and Tom Curry. England have to find out who is our starting hooker and blindside flanker and the pack is very good indeed, strong enough to go to a World Cup with total confidence, even relish. 

“But when you move on to the backs, it’s a different kettle of fish. I’ve no issues with Danny Care returning, as long as Eddie can say he’s the best in England, I don’t care if he’s 50 or 18, he’s got to be the best to leapfrog those other players. We have Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell at ten and for me, it is either/or, but not together under any circumstances. 

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“They are both ‘podium’ No10s but Farrell is not a twelve. If the World Cup was this weekend I would have no hesitation in starting Owen at ten and as captain and cannot understand how he attracts so much flak. Smith’s day will come, but is he the best at the moment? We seem to take comfort in the number of good players we have but it is not numbers, it is world-class players in your starting XV that counts.  

“Where England are all over the place is at nine, eleven, twelve, 13 and 14. We don’t know who the best players are for international rugby. Freddie Steward is a gold player but at full-back, not on the wing. Even Manu Tuilagi is not on the podium as we’ve not seen enough of him over the last two years. 

“I’d build my back division around Steward at full-back – he’s that good – but can someone in the England camp start saying so and loudly? England’s problems have reinforced the need for a director of rugby at the RFU. Such a position has been essential for the last 25 years. We’ve had a series of chief executives who think they’re qualified for the role, but in truth have not played rugby since their schooldays.

“Bill Sweeney is a good guy but his biggest weakness is he’s a fan. He loves being part of the team. That is a big mistake. A proper director of rugby supports the head coach but leaves him with zero excuses. England are in a corner now and if it were to go wrong in Australia, they would be in a real hole which will take some fixing with just over a year to the World Cup.” 

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