Selection uproar, but for the wrong reasons
Eddie Jones’ team selection yesterday afternoon attracted the usual criticism, perhaps with a greater magnitude than usual following the decision to pick Mike Brown on the wing ahead of Denny Solomona or Nathan Earle. I have been a rather staunch defender of the side Jones has selected this week, striking a reasonable balance between progressive changes and pragmatic selections with the intention of stabilising changes that will test England’s structure more than many realise.
However, while the uninspiring selections of Brown on the wing and Piers Francis on the bench - ahead of Danny Cipriani - make sense from a damage limitation perspective, they must not become a permanent fixture after tomorrow.
The wise Mr. Greenwood
In his piece for the Telegraph earlier today, former England centre and excellent columnist/media presence Will Greenwood highlighted a lack of pace in England’s backline, an issue that has struck me with an equal level of unease. One position in particular that could prove far more detrimental than Brown’s or Francis’ inclusions is the selection of Henry Slade at outside centre. The 25-year-old has been picked in the 13 jersey to add yet another intelligent rugby brain alongside George Ford and Owen Farrell, able to operate as a third fly-half.
For as much magic as Slade can conjure up when at his best, he adds to the number of backs in the starting XV lacking true running threat. With Ben Youngs, Ford, Farrell and Brown all selected alongside Slade, right wing Jonny May and fullback Daly are the only members of England’s backline possessing genuine strike running threat.
Backline mixology, a tricky art
The whole point of having playmakers at fly-half and inside centre is to unleash the danger men outside, but with only May and Daly occupying this role the England backline could find themselves stifled - lacking in individuals able to penetrate defences.
England’s backline would have greatly benefited from a third out-and-out running threat in place of yet another ball player. Unfortunately, Jones decided against including such an option on tour, with both Harlequins’ Joe Marchant and Gloucester’s Henry Trinder left to watch the three Test series from the comfort of their sofas in England.
This decision to include Slade alongside newly appointed captain Owen Farrell in the midfield could make or break both Jones’ and Slades’ England careers. If the Exeter star can impose the physical yet silky smooth operations shown in club colours, he can do a job for England. But if he fails to prove a viable running option, England’s attack will be forced yet again to rely solely on their outside backs. This should not be taken as a slight towards Slade’s skill set, but the balance Jones has struck by including him in such a structure.
Daly at risk of revolving door selection
The inclusion of Daly at fullback is a big positive for England. For far too long the national side has been starved of a genuine running threat from the backfield. We have to look as far back as Delon Armitage to see a real runner of the ball in the 15 jersey. Daly builds upon this with an excellent rugby brain that will rival the creative talents of Springbok counterpart and Wasps teammate Willie Le Roux. Daly’s appointment at fullback makes sense on many levels and is a huge positive for England, but there is a risk we may see this selection forcibly removed if England’s midfield fail to trouble South Africa’s defence.
The concern is that should Jones realise Slade is not making the impact required in England’s framework, Daly will be moved into the centres and Brown will re-assume his position at fullback. While Daly will offer a world class attacking threat wherever he slots into England’s backline, you lose the promising dimension of a dangerous and creative 15, something England are in dire need of, if they are to reinstate themselves as the third best team in the world. Arguably hanging onto the coattails of their success in 2016 and 2017.
Risk averse bench
Jones has also forced himself into a corner with his bench selections should he require a change to his midfield. Neither Francis or Denny Solomona are able to cover outside centre or fullback to a level that will either improve England’s attack or serve as an adequate replacement. A more progressive and promising selection of Alex Lozowski and Jason Woodward in the 22 and 23 jerseys respectively could have proven far more beneficial, with both men able to cover outside centre and fullback with a genuine line breaking threat.
All we can hope is that the pragmatic selections made by Jones this week will be short-lived and are a temporary type of scaffolding employed to secure the installation of a new look pack and Daly at fullback. If the same selection process is maintained throughout the three Test series, Jones will have merely traded one set of problems for another, wasting precious time to progress England’s structure in the build up to the World Cup next year.
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