England Rugby Playmaker Strategy

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SAN JUAN, ARGENTINA - JUNE 09: Alex Lozowski of England looks on during a training session at the Universitario Rugby Club on June 9, 2017 in San Juan, San Juan. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images,)

England won the first of their two match series in Argentina last weekend in a thrilling 38-34 victory over the Pumas. An end result still very much in the balance up until the dying moments, it was evidence of more improvements in England rugby. All steps made towards the next Rugby World Cup.

Thrilling Victory in Sunny Santa Fe

Whilst trailing Argentina by three points up until the 79th minute, Denny Solomona produced a stunning piece of individual brilliance from the halfway line. The newly qualified England man showcased a prolific try scoring ability he has become renowned for. After a mere six months in professional rugby union, he beat four Argentinian would-be defenders, for a clear run to score under the posts.

Considering that result, Last Word on rugby consider five talking points going into this weekends fixture on the England rugby summer tour.

The Playmakers

When Eddie Jones began his tenure as England head coach, he selected two fly-halves in his starting XV. Both Owen Farrell and George Ford both accommodated in the same side. A combination viewed by many as a ‘temporary solution’ to the lack of international quality inside centres available to England. With Manu Tuilagi being plagued by injuries, rugby league convert Ben Te’o lacking experience in rugby union [at that time] and Luther Burrell not impressing during his time under Jones.

However, with the success of two RBS Six Nation titles, including a Grand Slam and a 3-0 series victory away in Australia, the strategy of utilising more than one ballplayer in the midfield seems to have shown the mastery of Jones. So well ingrained, it has become a mainstay in the international sides game plan. Utilizing the electric pace of players like Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson to make their line breaks.

This not an alien strategy for the Australian coach. Matt Giteau is possibly the most successful ball playing centre of the professional era, reaching over 100 international appearances (despite a four year hiatus from 2011-2015). It was Jones who gave him his first Australian cap at just 20 years old in 2002. Amazingly, before playing his first game of Super Rugby. With Giteau’s unquestioned success, it would seem Eddie Jones has a knack for seeing potential in players and helping them to grow into top quality internationals.

British and Irish Lions Players Removed from England Rugby

This summer the England squad was depleted of the first choice centre options. With Owen Farrell, Te’o, Joseph and Elliot Daly all selected for the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand. Wingers Watson and Jack Nowell have also been taken on tour with the Lions, leaving an unfamiliar looking English backline.

While this stands testament to the quality of the English backs; to fill a majority of the 41 player squad, it leaves Jones with only Ford, Jonny May and Mike Brown left from his first choice back division. With many options removed, Jones has taken this chance to test six further center options that could fill the role of ‘playmaker’ to the same effect of the succesfull Ford-Farrell axis.

Alex Lozowski, Henry Slade, Piers Francis, Sam James, Ollie Devoto and Harry Mallinder have all played at first-five–as either their primary position or as match day/injury cover. Further to these six, inside centre Ryan Mills (who has been covering at fly-half for Worcester Warriors this season) was included in a wider training squad last month. The only centre selected by Jones unable to play at fly-half was young outside centre Joe Marchant, who has unfortunately been ruled out of the Argentina series due to injury.

The most notable aspect of Jones selecting so many playmakers is the size of the players available to him. Piers Francis is the ‘smallest pick of the bunch’ standing at 6ft and coming in at 14st 7lbs….hardly light weight. The largest of the contenders, is 21 year old Harry Mallinder, who is 6ft 5” and weighs an impressive 17st 0lbs. Anyone with doubt in their mind about the weight of the midfield should feel at ease with the thought of Mallinder ‘throwing his substantial weight around’ the pitch.

Eddie’s New Playmakers:

  1. Ollie Devoto: 23 years old, 6ft 4”, 15st 6lbs
  2. Piers Francis: 27 years old, 6ft 0”, 14st 7lbs
  3. Sam James: 22 years old, 6ft 5”, 14st 11lbs
  4. Alex Lozowski: 23 years old, 6ft 0”, 14st 7lbs
  5. Harry Mallinder: 21 years old, 6ft 5”, 17st 0lbs
  6. Ryan Mills: 25 years old, 6ft 0”, 14st 11lbs
  7. Henry Slade: 24 years old, 6ft 2”, 13st 10lbs

England Rugby Going Forward?

Eddie Jones has taken this playmaker strategy a step further during the first test in Santa Fe, by starting both Alex Lozowski and Henry Slade in the centres. And in putting Piers Francis on the bench, he was the only realistic centre replacement. With out and out winger Solomona on the bench it was hardly going to be the uncapped 20-year-old scrum half Jack Maunder that filled Te’o’s rather substantial boots as one of Eddies ‘finishers’.

That said, I would like to see the barnstorming Zimbabwean born flanker Don Armand possibly given a whirl at 12… Suggestions like that maybe why I’m behind a laptop, and not holding cones and rugby balls at Pennyhill Park! But joking aside, apart from a few unforced nervy errors from some of England’s new crop of players, the strategy employed in Argentina showed few weaknesses.

The next step from here; should Jones want to pursue this tactic, would be to select a similar lineup in either the November internationals or the 2018 Six Nations. Continuing this ‘triple ball-player’ strategy up against the high pressure-cooker of the likes of top five nations–Australia and Ireland.

Changing of the Guard

With plenty of fresh faces placed under the magnifying glass by Jones in training and test matches, the questions begs ‘who of the current midfield options place seems most under threat?’

Farrell is renowned as one of; if not, the top fly-half in world rugby while Joseph has shown a brilliant strike rate in his time under Jones. So it is safe to assume they are unlikely to lose their spots. But Te’o will be 32 by 2019 and Ford has faced criticism of late for a drop in form, poor kicking performances from the tee and a lack of solidity in defense–compared to the likes Farrell and Lozowski.

Owen Farrell of England kicks a penalty during the match between England and Australia at Twickenham Stadium. (Photo by David Rogers – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Should Jones prefer any one of the six young ball-playing 12’s available to him, fans could well see Farrell shifted inside to his preferred position of 10. That move may develop his world class game management, big match temperament and goal kicking accuracy to the national side.

That said, if Ford is facing pressure from the new faces, his impressive performance around the pitch and from the tee against Argentina last weekend will have helped him state his case for keeping the starting berth.

Future Planning with England Rugby Squad

At the very least, Eddie Jones is ensuring he has adequate injury cover for the 2019 Rugby World Cup and keeping his current starting players honest. That comes through pressure from the young up-and-comers. Future planning is essential, should either of Ford or Farrell miss out on the tournament due to injury. Something this would completely change the make up of the backline and force changes to the game plan Jones will have worked so hard to develop over four years.

Saturdays performance gives reason to the theory that Jones may be looking to utilise a third playmaker at 13, playing a smart brand of rugby designed to sniff out any possiblity of a gap for strike runners. That, and to capitalise on space in behind the opposition’s defence. Henry Slade showed us the benefits of this plan in Santa Fee, with a masterful ‘show and go’ to break the opposition line. He followed that up by a perfectly weighted grubber to the corner for May to score. With Ford and Lozowski also on the pitch, the consequence of an unorganised opposition defence could easily result in points for England rugby.

Is a midfield stacked with playmakers the immediate way forward for Eddie Jones and his England squad? It seems unlikely given that Farrell, Te’o, Joseph and Daly will return to this country next month. However, fans may have seen the start of a shake up in the Ford-Farrell axis and/or bench options for the Japan 2019 Rugby World Cup and beyond.

The options available to Jones now are wider and the skillset impressive. That comes with the potential to mold one of his available options into a world class player, not found wanting in rugby intelligence or size. From this writers perspective, the future is bright for Eddie Jones and his playmaker game plan.

So whatever you were planning this Saturday from 8:15pm, cancel it. Get yourself a spot on the sofa, tune in or livestream the second test. Chuck on your England rugby jersey on and enjoy watching England’s next generation unfold!

Argentina v England – Santa Fee

“Main photo credit”

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