Eddie Jones faces a selection dilemma with the England Rugby inside center position. In his initial England squad as head coach, Eddie Jones searched for a physical inside center. With all this choice, Last Word on Rugby asks “who is the next player to wear the number 12 jersey?”
Inside center is an area Jones has claimed to be lacking in the England squad so far. Whenever Jones has trialed a new center, current England 12 Owen Farrell has been shifted back to his natural position of fly-half or moved there after replacements enter the fray. One thing we do know: Farrell will always be in Jones starting lineup, either at 10 or 12.
New Options, More Choices at England Rugby Inside Center Role
Jones will soon be faced with the dilemma of deciding whether to start in form British and Irish Lions player, Ben Te’o. The cross-code Lion showed convincing performances at 12, in wins over the Maori All Blacks and Crusaders. Arguably, as one of stand out players in both games too. Not to mention an impressive role in the loss against the All Blacks in the first test. His performance has raised the question as to ‘why Te’o has not started for England?’
Jones has given very little reason to doubt his tactics, with an impressive 95% win rate to date. But after the wide array of centers he trialed in the Argentina series recently, it is clear the 12 jersey is still very much up for debate.
Here, LWOR discuss the current options at Jones disposal, what they offer and their place in the queue behind Farrell.
1. Owen Farrell
Widely debated as the northern hemispheres best fly-half, Owen Farrell is currently in secure possession of the 12 jersey. He has started 18 out of 19 games during his time under Jones, with one game from the bench. A solid choice, who is reaching new heights on the Lions tour.
As a center, Farrell brings solid defensive work and a deadly passing and kicking game. He is the man responsible for stepping in when fly-half George Ford is unable to capitalize on opportunities out wide.
The dual playmaker strategy has delivered wins for Eddie Jones and his men. The Ford-Farrell axis has lead England to back-to-back Six Nations titles. Farrell was pivotal in a 0-3 series win over Australia.
Farrell Has Plenty of Strengths, as Well as Weaknesses Too
When compared to the likes of the Wesley Fofana, Ma’a Nonu and Robbie Henshaw, Farrell’s weakness is his lack of pure athletic ability. What is lost in this area is gained in attacking vision, capitalizing on utilizing natural attacking flair.
Should another option at 12 be found, it would seem Farrell could [likely] step back to 10. His time spent playing at inside center has visibly improved his attacking instincts. This was an area he was criticized for when Ford first made his presence known in the England side.
For now, any potential 12’s Jones decided to invest time in are fighting to be Farrell’s back up–direct replacement–and/or starting teammate.
2. Ben Te’o
Rugby league convert Ben Te’o was handpicked by Jones after impressing with Irish province Leinster. It is reported he was persuaded to join English side Worcester Warriors, with the promise of an international career with England.
To assist that, Te’o brings an impressive carrying and offloading game – skills developed during his seven year league career. With eight caps and one England start to his name, Te’o seems the current replacement for Farrell; should the Saracens man be unavailable.
In a surprise announcement, Te’o was included in Warren Gatland’s 2017 British and Irish Lions squad. Initially considered an outside bet, Te’o impressed during the warm up matches. The New Zealand-born man earned a first test start against the All Blacks at 12, alongside England teammate Farrell.
Te’o has been one of the stand out performers for the Lions, causing many to question his lack of England starts. When taking into consideration Te’o’s form and time invested in the Ford-Farrell dual playmaker strategy, the England coaching team may find some selection headaches for the upcoming 2017 Autumn internationals.
3. Alex Lozowski
Lozowski found himself included in the England squad after a handful of stellar performances in a Saracens jersey. With injuries to Farrell and Alex Goode at club level, Lozowski had the opportunity to start at number 10 and 15 in the Premiership. Impressed with his speed and aggressive tackling, Jones has seen the young Saracen as an option at 12.
The former Wasps man was awarded with starting the first Test match against Argentina this summer. As well as leading the defensive line, Lozowski showed impressive attacking instincts at test level and will be firmly in the mind of the England coaches.
4. Henry Slade
Slade has been a firm favourite of Jones ever since his first ever EPS (Elite Player Squad) in 2016. Slade possess impressive versatility; able to play at 10, 12, 13 and 15. The Exeter Chief’s man has potential to become a world class player. Slade has showed a sublime passing, offloading and kicking game. However, has a tendency to struggle under pressure in bigger games.
Slade’s debut in Argentina this summer presented moments of magic no other in the squad could produce. It is a shame it was combined with unforced and uncharacteristic errors. Just as likely to make a line break and create a try as he is to miss a tackle and throw a ball into touch. By Jones’ estimation, if Slade can find both form and consistency he could well find himself in the England starting lineup.
5. Piers Francis
The former Saracens academy man is able to play at both fly-half and 12 equally well. Francis was a surprise addition to this summers Argentina tour, despite playing for the Auckland Blues in 2017. Jones allowed for special circumstances, recognizing his value as Francis will join Northampton Saints at the end of the Super Rugby season.
When given the chance for England, Francis impressed many with his attacking contributions. The incoming Saint played a key role in three tries in two games, with one starting role. The most prevalent of his skills was the ability to orchestrate and execute scoring chances in broken play. A trait often associated with NZ rugby, the influence playing at the Blues and Counties-Manukau has had on Francis, is obvious.
At 27, Francis still has plenty of time for potential caps and could play a key role in the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Either as a very useful bench option, or even a direct replacement for Farrell.
6. Ollie Devoto
Exeter Chiefs teammate and often midfield partner of Slade, Devoto offers an almost identical skill set to Slade. The difference being his size and carrying ability, rather than and Slade’s ability to produce magical moments of skill. In recent times Devoto has ousted Slade from the Exeter lineup, offering a more consistent level of performance and physicality. In Jones initial 2016 EPS ,he was called up as injury cover for Slade and featured off the bench in the ensuing Six Nations.
Still at the young age of 23, Devoto has plenty of time to develop. If he can combine his consistency, with the level of performance Slade has shown at times then Devoto will be in contention for a regular spot under Australian-born head coach Jones.
7. Sam James
James has played most of his senior rugby for Sale Sharks at outside center, and indeed his only England appearance. However he very much fits the mold of the 12 that Jones has described at the start of his tenure.
A large back with the ability to carry, offload, kick and pass at pre, and post-contact. If James gets his chance on the international scene, he could well end up gaining the England coaching teams favour.
A versatile player, James has often played at fly-half, offering a similar skill set to Francis. What James lacks in Francis’s broken field instincts, however he gains in athleticism and youth. Two key aspects Jones may find more appealing, as a developing player for the future.
8. Harry Mallinder
21 year old Harry Mallinder is son of former Sale Sharks player and current Northampton Saints head coach, Jim Mallinder. A player with much potential though, Mallinder brings a similar skill set to the aforementioned options. A young fly-half/come inside center, Mallinder has demonstrated an impressive temperament for his age.
The Saints man offers vision, offloading and a kicking and passing game at premiership level. Mallinder also offers size; at 105kg and 6ft 3″ (195cm) he stands even with Lions crashball 12 Ben Te’o, at 106kg and 6ft 2″.
Surprisingly, despite this size, Mallinder’s defence has raised questions this last season. If he can learn to harness his natural footballing ability and size, Mallinder could well be a future international star. That is now down to his desire and the quality of coaches surrounding him. Father Jim and national coach Jones will be keen for the young man to reach his full potential.
9. Manu Tuilagi
Lastly on our list is Manu Tuilagi. A formidable player, like no other in the England player pool. Tuilagi is famous for his bullocking runs and bone shaking tackles that even the great All Blacks struggled to contain.
Tuilagi falls into the same category as Ben Te’o, a large ball carrier who has the ability to offload in contact. Predominantly an outside center, is has been clear Jones has earmarked the Samoan born midfielder as a 12. Jones has spoken openly about his confidence in Tuilagi becoming the next Ma’a Nonu. That is, if he can work on developing a more rounded passing and kicking game.
Plagued by injuries in recent years, Tuilagi has struggled to maintain fitness. If he believes he can add to the selection dilemma with the England Rugby inside center position, then hopes are that Tuilagi can return fit and firing. Do that, and there is no doubt he’ll find himself back in the England set up.
Jones Has a Wealth of Options for England Rugby Inside Center
Not short on options, it might be in the coaches short-term gains. Over the longer term, Jones and the England set-up need to strike while the choices are high. Wait too long, and the wealth of talent may dry-up……or worse, fall to injury or a drop in form.
“Main photo credit”