Crashball Rugby's editor Alistair Stokes explains why Eddie Jones is currently utilising inside centre as an optional role, trading the 12 jersey for a second fly-half.
The strategy of playing a second playmaker at inside centre is a well-trodden subject, with the likes of Owen Williams and Kurtley Beale pulling the secondary strings for Wales and Australia in excellent fashion at times. However, it seems England head coach, Eddie Jones, has taken this tactic to the next level, taking the step-up from playmaking twelve to fully fledged secondary fly-half.
George Ford is the national sides incumbent ten, with Owen Farrell slotting into the twelve jersey, or that is how it seems. In most international training camps, two teams are selected to battle for the nod from the head coach, signaling their approval and a starting role. While you may be imagining Ford and Farrell paired alongside each other against the likes of Henry Slade, Alex Lozowski and Piers Francis, or indeed split up but remaining in their test match positions, you'd be mistaken.
It seems Jones has other ideas for the way in which he wants his 10-12 partnership to develop. Recently, England teammate Danny Care has revealed how Ford and Farrell are on opposing mid-week teams, no surprise there, but Farrell is not paired alongside the likes of Slade, Lozowski or Francis in the twelve jersey, he is instead selected as the fly-half to train opposite Ford. It is curious to see that Farrell is truly considered a fly-half despite only starting two test-matches there under Jones.
Playmaking twelve's are so often second fiddle to their fly-half, Farrell is however, on level ground with Ford, taking on equal amounts if not more of the game management responsibilities.
When you look at Australia's Kurtley Beale and Wales' Owen Williams, you see that Bernard Foley and Dan Bigger are very much in the driving seat, allowing Beale and Williams to work in an assistant role. In the England set-up, Farrell is working as Ford's co-architect, allowing the talented Tigers fly-half to devote his time and attention to England's attacking game. The number on Farrell's back would be more accurately reflected with a 10 ver.2.0 printed on the back, instead of the current 12.
Indeed when Jones sends out-and-out centre Ben Te'o off the bench to fill the inside centre berth, only then does the position truly become a centre in name and nature. In fact, when this change occurs, Farrell is shifted inside to fly-half, with Ford returning to the sidelines. Then and only then does an inside centre actually exist in Jones' game plan, and when it does, Farrell is the man to take the reigns.
Here are a few stats to put that into perspective. In Kurtley Beale's last start at inside centre for Australia, he made eleven carries. Owen Williams' last start at inside centre for Wales saw the 25-year-old carry 15 times. In Owen Farrell's last two starts at inside centre for the British and Irish Lions and England, he carried the ball only four times. Farrell is spending far more time managing, observing and creating than Beale and Williams, who are allowed to focus more on their own attacking intent. Farrell is
truly operating as a second fly-half and not just a playmaking centre.
It seems to me, the fact that it is Ford who leaves the pitch when Te'o takes the field proves that Farrell is the first choice fly-half. Should a true out-and-out inside centre such as Scotland's Alex Dunbar, New Zealand's Sonny Bill Williams or even a fit and firing Manu Tuilagi appear in the England ranks, they'd be hard-pressed to earn anything more than a bench role, barring injuries.
Jones' tactics have thus far proved extremely successful, winning 22/23 games for a 95% win rate is the stuff of dreams. Being blessed with a player of Farrell's quality, who is able to kick the corners and distribute as well as he tackles is fundamental to winning silverware when utilising the dual playmaker game plan.
However, should Farrell pick up a long-term injury, the replacements of Henry Slade, Alex Lozowski, and Piers Francis are a significant drop in quality. Not to knock them, but Farrell is unrivaled in World Rugby at what he does.
A long-term injury for Farrell would be disastrous for Eddie Jones and his men. The loss of no other player would hamper the national sides hopes quite like an absent Faz. The inclusion of quite so many fly-half/centres in England squads over the last year begins to make sense. Seven players have been put through their paces by Jones. Slade, Lozowski, Francis, Harry Mallinder, Ollie Devoto, Ryan Mills and Sam James have all been tried and tested in camp by the 57-year-old Australian.
Now we've taken a closer look at the Ford-Farrell combination, keep an eye out in next month's England-Wales clash, you'll notice the difference in which the midfield axes operate.
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