Saracens sprung a surprise in naming Alex Lozowski on the right wing ahead of their game with Leicester Tigers this weekend.
Lozowski, dropped from England’s 28-man squad this week in favour of Piers Francis, returns to Gallagher Premiership action in an unfamiliar position, allying alongside Alex’s Goode and Lewington in the back three.
Versatility is a blessing
The 25-year-old is one of rugby’s most versatile players.
Coming through as primarily a fly-half with some ability at 15, Lozowski has evolved into a back-of-all-trades.
He is most commonly utilised at outside centre for Saracens and has emerged as a real force alongside Brad Barritt.
With pace, footwork and strength, Lozowski is an able ball carrier and effective as a second distributor to exploit width; Saracens get the ball wide off set-piece better than just about any team in the world.
Lozowski’s rugby intelligence is a crucial facet to his game. His option-taking is excellent, his lines of running clever and defensively he is error-free.
This intelligence enables Lozowski to adapt and thrive wherever he is deployed, and it would not be a surprise to see him once again be a duck to water as he prepares to wing-it at Welford Road on Sunday.
Eddie Jones opted to use Lozowski at 12 against Japan. This is understandable – England have depth at 13. But the inside centre berth is still one that needs to be filled ahead of the World Cup.
Owen Farrell is now entrenched and vital at ten, opening up the role. With Ben Te’o yet to produce a jersey-securing performance, Lozowski was seen by some as the top choice for the position.
Lozowski had played four times for England before the Japan game but hadn’t earned Jones’ trust yet, notably not seeing the pitch on this summer’s tour to South Africa.
Japan seemed to present an ideal opportunity for him to seize the shirt and secure his spot. Instead, Lozowski lasted only 41 minutes before being hooked by Jones.
England’s midfield looked disjointed and ineffective in the first half and Lozowski was seen at the culprit.
Now, with Francis seemingly ahead in the pecking order and Jonathan Joseph set to return and other centres putting their hand up (Newcastle’s Johnny Williams for example), Lozowski is looking like an outside bet for the World Cup squad.
When England were using the Ford-Farrell axis, Lozowski initially broke into the squad to provide depth as a fly-half option. It now it seems more likely England would take a specialist third ten as cover. Henry Slade could also be used in an emergency.
Indeed, Saracens are no longer playing Lozowski at fly-half with regularity. Max Malins is earning more opportunities (and starts there against Leicester), while against Northampton in September Alex Goode slid up from full-back to start there – with Lozowski on the bench.
Versatility is a curse
In many ways, Lozowski is a victim of his own versatility.
His play at 13 over the last year-or-so suggests he is one of England’s premier options at the position.
Yet when his name comes up in selection discussions, it is always about how to fit him in, what he can do as a bench player, adaptability and the like.
In this regard, he is not alone.
Take Reece Hodge, for example. Hodge has now started 24 times for Australia right across the backline. Capable anywhere from fly-half to full-back, he has suffered similarly to Lozowski in his inability to secure one berth.
Unquestionably one of Australia’s most talented and promising backs, Hodge is yet to find his role. Despite being one of their best players, it seems his opportunities only come when others are injured.
Being a utility back is fine, but to build a functional backline you need players who know their roles well. Hodge has huge potential to be a difference-maker at international level, but until he gets a serious run at one spot his potential may go unfulfilled.
Jordie Barrett may be heading in a similar direction. The Hurricane starts on the wing for New Zealand against Italy this weekend. More commonly sighted at full-back, Barrett has also covered ten in the past.
The player himself thinks he fits best in midfield, and he starred for New Zealand U20s at second five-eighth.
It is conceivable that, like Lozowski and Hodge, Barrett’s versatility becomes his only ability and stunts his growth as a player on the international stage.
Thus, as Alex Lozowski prepares to line up in unfamiliar wider climes on Sunday, it is worth noting that for some backs, their versatility is both a blessing and a curse.
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