With the Six Nations less than a fortnight away, Charlie Morgan offers his view on the much debated England backline.
Home nations rugby fans- rejoice. The year is upon us; 2015 will see the Rugby World Cup return to its spiritual home in England, which will play host to one of the greatest sporting spectacles. Before that there is perhaps the most significant Six Nations of recent years, as it will give a good indication of the strengths and weaknesses, and opportunities, for the home nations going forward into the Tournament in September.
Stuart Lancaster announced his training squad for the first Six Nations game against Wales in Cardiff on 6th February, and the forwards look formidable. Five British and Irish Lions have returned from lay-offs and the pack looks a force to be reckoned with, even with the likes of Ben Morgan and Courtney Lawes set to miss out through injury.
However England’s issue remains in the backs; though there is a crop of real talent, Lancaster has struggled in his tenure to find a cohesive group with the perfect balance. With such a momentous rugby year ahead, here are my selections for England’s backline: England’s carving knife to accompany its formidable jackhammer.
Our starter: Danny Care
On the bench: Ben Youngs
Over the last few years this has been one of England’s more consistent fixtures in the backline and proves a difficult selection. Danny Care gets the nod over Ben Youngs primarily because of the style he likes to play. He injects a real vitality and sense of urgency to proceedings and should generate quick ball for the free-flowing, attacking style England need to cut through some intense opposition. Not without his mistakes, he does need to pick his moments to spark and work on his tactical kicking; however, he remains an exciting talent. Ben Youngs seems Care’s polar opposite; technically very gifted and an exceptional kicker, he lacks the catalytic quick ball and sniping ability to bring England’s backs into play. Saracens playmaker Richard Wigglesworth is also in the squad and, though a talented player, these two appear a class above.
Our Starter: Danny Cipriani
On the Bench: George Ford/ Owen Farrell
Only recently has Owen Farrell’s reign of the number ten jersey been questioned; with more game time under his belt for Saracens he should regain the form that gave him the jersey, but I think England need a slight change in direction. Farrell exhibits the problem that Ben Youngs does; though technically very gifted and a solid base for tactical kicking, he lacks a spark and the go-forward to bring his other backs into the game at pace. Based on this, George Ford seems a more interesting pick. He showed immense composure in the autumn against Samoa and he needs to keep a level head on his young shoulders; if he does, he can control the game in the same vein as Farrell. However he will offer more vitality and footwork that draws defenders in, making space for others.
However, although controversial I believe Cipriani should get the start as we look ahead to the World Cup. Whilst he may not have much bargaining power in a squad he hasn’t been part of since 2008, with International game time he could provide the x-factor England so desperately crave. He has been playing fantastically for Sale over the last two seasons and there is no reason his past ‘baggage’ should overshadow his rugby talents. If he can keep a level head and control the tempo of the game through kicking from hand, and attack when needed, England could have one of its missing pieces; long live the return of the prodigal son.
Our starters: Luther Burrell & Jonathan Joseph
On the bench: Henry Slade & Brad Barritt
And now on to the real crux of the matter: England’s centre pairing. It is worth noting that this is what I think England’s backline should look like and not what it is likely to look like come the first Six Nations test. England need to find a mixture of power and flair, which seemingly leads to Burrell and Joseph. Luther Burrell is one of the more consistent of England’s recent centres; injuries aside he can achieve powerful go-forward across the gain line and offers an impressive sleight of hand for a power centre. To compliment this, in-form Bath star Jonathan Joseph offers real flair and a turn of pace missing from some of the other selections and should be included to threaten defences on the outside and between the tackles.
Meanwhile although only in the Saxons squad currently, Henry Slade should be able to make a strong case for a place on the bench come the World Cup. He remains one of the Premiership’s most underrated centres and his intricate hands and defensive capabilities would provide effective cover late in games. The same can be said for Brad Barritt; his formidable defensive capabilities automatically warrant his consideration but there isn’t enough of an attacking spark to merit his inclusion in the starting XV.
Our Starters: Jonny May, Anthony Watson & Mike Brown
On the bench: Marland Yarde, Jack Nowell
This is one of England’s major strengths in the backline. The back three have a strong footing in the squad and are more than capable of threatening any defence. Perhaps Lancaster’s first name on every team sheet is talismanic fullback Mike Brown; he is immense under the high ball, offers an injection of pace and is a strong character to have in your dressing room. His talents are undisputed and should start at fullback whenever possible.
Similarly, Anthony Watson showed his talents in the autumn internationals and, with more international experience he hopefully will remain in the England set up for some time. He has incredible footwork and searing acceleration, and his move to Bath Rugby has allowed him to mature, with improved positioning and ability under the high ball. Jonny May poses perhaps a more awkward dilemma. Despite not being as well rounded as the likes of Yarde or Nowell, his electric pace demands his selection. Defences always have to account for him and even if they do, as evidenced by his try against New Zealand in the autumn, they often cannot stop him.
This selection demonstrates the manner in which I would like England to play; with more attacking flair and pace. This can be achieved best not necessarily by including the seven best individual backs but by including the best combinations across the board. This merits May’s inclusion. However, the rugby talents of both Marland Yarde and Jack Nowell cannot be ignored, and as such they both deserve a place in the squad.
With the Six Nations squads announced and injuries still plaguing the camp, it is probably unlikely we will see this group of seven start for England against Wales on 6th February. However, I believe this combination would allow England to play its most positive brand of rugby. Looking ahead to the World Cup, this combination would give England a genuine chance at keeping the Webb-Ellis trophy on home soil.bookmark me