Crashball Rugby's editor, Alistair Stokes, discusses why Exeter Chiefs wing Jack Nowell could be England's answer to a lightweight backline at outside centre.
When Eddie Jones announced his Six Nations squad last Thursday, he discussed the fact that Nowell was being considered as an option at outside centre. Upon hearing this comment, I examined why Nowell could be a revelation for England at outside centre. I am going to revisit those points, but with a bit of additional information and analysis you might have missed.
It is well publicised that the 57-year-old wants a more physical presence from his backline, with Ben Te'o starting in the 13 jersey against Italy last year. Nowell has been found wanting at times for pace at test level, whilst some of his best work in a white jersey has come in heavy traffic. The 24-year-old is the more physical of England's wings, proving himself as adept around the contact area as he is utilising some well-timed footwork to put defenders off balance.
We've clipped up a few examples of Nowell doing his thing nearer the middle of the pitch than out wide.
Nowell muscles his way through the middle of a Gloucester defence
Nowell demonstrates some quick thinking for a quarterback sneak against the Waikato Chiefs in a Lions jersey
Nowell exploits the Chiefs' defence for his second score of the match over the summer
Playing at outside centre wouldn't be a completely alien prospect for Nowell. In December 2015, fellow Exeter player Henry Slade broke his ankle at the Ricoh Arena after being cleared out of a ruck by Sailosi Tagicakibau. Nowell was the man to step into Slades' shoes at outside centre, spending a good few months in the 13 jersey for the Chiefs. Nowell's stint at outside centre was a pretty successful one, at the time, looking like one of the more threatening 13's in the Premiership.
In addition to this stint out of position, the manner in which Nowell and his fellow Exeter wingers are deployed gives him an edge when converting one position inside. The Chiefs' wings are often found at first receiver, they have the option to use their acceleration to bust through gaps or mismatches they spot in the defensive line ahead of them or distribute to one out forward runners in an effort to take a more direct route.
The only big question mark over Nowell's return to centre is his defence. Outside centre is a notoriously difficult position to defend, with England's incumbent 13, Jonathan Joseph, one of the best defenders in world rugby in his position.
Earlier today, Jones compared Nowell to All Black great Conrad Smith, believing the 24-year-old could fill a similar role for England. When Eddie talks up one of his players in the media, it's for the benefit of the player and not the media and fans. He did the same thing for George Ford and Billy Vunipola when he first came into his England role, identifying the two of them as individuals that need an arm around the shoulder rather than a kick up the arse. Jones also talked up England and Lions winger Elliot Daly, who at the time was playing exclusively at outside centre, giving the Wasps man that extra confidence boost to perform on the international stage out of position.
The prospect of Nowell at outside centre is one with much potential, how well he adapts to the defensive roles of the position is another matter. It doesn't seem to be a call we are likely to see anytime soon, with Nowell currently out with an ankle injury. However, if Jones believes there is time before the World Cup to convert the Truro born man, we may be looking at a Farrell-Nowell combination in the centres.
Nowell has the power, the pace and the youth on his hands to convert positions, whether he takes to it as well as Daly took to the wing, is another matter.
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